Thankfully, most parents see vaccination as an essential step in raising healthy kids: The immunization schedule is a key part of well-child visits for young children. Day cares and schools often require proof of vaccination for enrollment. And stories about the dangers of vaccine-preventable childhood diseases often appear in the news.

But the value of vaccinations does not depreciate when we become adults. At every age, vaccines are an essential part of staying healthy. Unfortunately, many adults are not getting the vaccines they need. Every year, tens of thousands of adults in the U.S. experience illness, are hospitalized, and even die from diseases that could be prevented by vaccines.1 Many adults are simply unaware that they need certain vaccines, while others underestimate the risks of skipping vaccines.1

Medical assistants can play an important role in boosting vaccination rates. By understanding the current adult vaccine recommendations and taking steps to encourage vaccination, medical assistants can help protect patients from serious diseases.

Call the shots

 All adults need two essential vaccines:

  • Seasonal influenza (flu) vaccine: Everyone 6 months or older needs a yearly flu vaccine, ideally before the end of October.2 The flu virus is constantly changing, and immunity diminishes over time, so adults must receive a flu vaccine each and every year.2
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) and tetanus-diphtheria (Td) vaccines: All adults need the Tdap vaccine if they did not receive it as a child and then a Td booster every 10 years.3

Additionally, adults may need to receive vaccines they missed as a child, including the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine; measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine; and chicken pox (varicella-zoster virus) vaccine.3 A health care provider can advise patients on which vaccines they need.

As adults age, they need additional vaccines:

  • Shingles (herpes zoster, or zoster) vaccine: Adults 50 years and older need the zoster vaccine to protect against shingles.3
  • Pneumococcal vaccines: Adults 65 years and older and people with certain chronic health conditions need pneumococcal vaccines to protect against pneumococcal disease, including infections in the lungs and bloodstream.3

Adults may need additional vaccines when traveling outside the U.S., and recommendations vary depending on the destination and the traveler.3

Medical assistants and other health care professionals work directly with patients and often handle material that could spread infection. Thus, medical professionals should get appropriate, recommended vaccines to reduce the chance of contracting or spreading vaccine-preventable diseases, which will protect both themselves and patients.3

Parental advisory

Pregnant women need to be up to date on vaccines before and during pregnancy because vaccines pass on some immunity in the womb, protecting a baby during the first few months after birth.4 Prenatal vaccines also protect the mother from serious diseases that can put the baby at risk.4

Women should get the MMR vaccine at least a month before becoming pregnant (not during pregnancy) if there is no evidence of having immunity to measles, mumps, and rubella.4 During pregnancy, rubella can cause a miscarriage or serious birth defects.4

Women need two vaccines during pregnancy:

  • Tdap: Pregnant women should get the Tdap vaccine during the third trimester of each pregnancy, even if they have received this vaccine previously, to help protect their babies from whooping cough (pertussis) in the first few months of life.4
  • Flu vaccine: Pregnant women must get the flu shot every year by the end of October.4 During pregnancy, changes in the immune system, heart, and lung functions make it more likely the woman will get seriously ill from flu.4 The flu also increases the chances that the developing baby will have serious health problems.4

The vax facts

Patients with certain chronic conditions face an increased risk of developing serious complications from certain diseases, which can lead to hospitalization and even death.

People with diabetes face higher rates of hepatitis B than the rest of the population. The virus can be spread through the sharing of blood sugar meters, finger stick devices, or other diabetes care equipment, such as insulin pens.5

Additionally, the flu as well as other illnesses can raise blood glucose to dangerously high levels. People with diabetes are also at increased risk of death from pneumonia (lung infection), bacteremia (blood infection), and meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord).5

People with heart disease and those who have had a heart attack are at higher risk of developing serious complications from certain diseases. For example, the flu and other diseases can increase the risk of another heart attack.6

People with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) face challenges that can complicate certain disease symptoms. For instance, asthma, COPD, and vaccine-preventable diseases can cause airways to swell and become blocked with mucus, and the combination can lead to pneumonia and other serious respiratory illnesses.7

Thus, adults with diabetes, heart disease, asthma, COPD, or a combination of any should receive these vaccines5-7:

  • Flu vaccine
  • Pneumococcal vaccines
  • Tdap vaccine
  • Zoster vaccine (at age 50 or older)
  • Hepatitis B vaccine series (if the patient has diabetes)

Roll up your sleeves

As members of health care teams who provide both clinical and administrative support, medical assistants are in a great position to help boost adult vaccination rates. Candice Robinson, MD, MPH, a medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sees several ways medical assistants can encourage vaccination.

“First, you can help avoid missed opportunities to vaccinate,” she says. “When reviewing and updating medical records, check vaccination status and let the clinician know which patients may be due for vaccines. Check your state immunization information system, if applicable, to find out if the patient has already received the recommended vaccines. And look for ways to build vaccine reminders into the office’s workflow—through alerts in the EHR [electronic health record] system, for example.”

Additionally, medical assistants are in a prime position to discuss vaccines with patients as the first people many patients see and speak with during an appointment, says Dr. Robinson.

“Ask about vaccines,” she says. “Remind patients about the risks of vaccine-preventable diseases—especially patients in high-risk groups. Let the clinician know about … any concerns the patient has. And when scheduling appointments and making follow-up calls, remind patients which vaccines will be due at their next visit. This reinforces the importance of vaccination and ensures patients are prepared to receive vaccines.”

Medical assistants can also foster a culture of immunization in their practice. “Become your office’s vaccine champion,” says Dr. Robinson. “Share educational materials with everyone in your practice, so they know which vaccines adults need and how to talk to patients about them.

“Make educational materials available to patients too. Display vaccine posters, provide Vaccine Information Statements (VISs) [information sheets produced by the CDC that explain the benefits and risks associated with vaccines], and share fact sheets about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases in the waiting and examination rooms,” she advises. “By taking every opportunity to share information about vaccines, you help patients take an essential step to protect their health.”