Vaccination in the Era of Covid

Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine Student Awarded Grant for Research on Health Care Providers and Vaccinations

December 07, 2020
TouroCOM Middletown student Atif Towheed, Ph.D.
Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine Middletown student Atif Towheed, Ph.D., is researching the health care provider's role in vaccination

Please can you share a couple of your top findings to date?

One of the most significant findings was the need for more education about vaccination. Respondents said this was a need they had for themselves as well as for their patients. We also confirmed the widespread belief that social media plays a critical role in patients’ decision-making when it comes to vaccines. Additionally, we learned that practitioners’ confidence levels in discussing vaccines with patients varied significantly between rural and urban areas, with more confidence in urban settings. 

What are some of the key factors that pose barriers to vaccination?

Our research showed that key factors posing barriers to vaccination include lack of education on vaccines, fear of becoming sick after vaccination, parental or patient hesitancy, and safety concerns. There are ways to combat these barriers by increasing awareness through patient-provider interactions, including discussions about the risks and benefits of vaccines during patient interactions on routine visits. Based on these findings, we recommend an education program tiered to target health professionals at various levels of their education and careers.

How did you come to research this topic?

The study was initiated in summer 2019 after a noted outbreak of measles in and around our community. Our team of five includes faculty and students at TouroCOM, Middletown and a representative from the Orange County Department of Health. The work grew out of a discussion about the critical importance of vaccination for preventing illness. Under the supervision of Dr. Stephanie Zeszutek, clinical associate professor in the Department of Primary Care, we considered how vaccines also help lower health care costs, especially given the increasing number of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States.

Others have looked into the relationship between vaccination rates and the education and views/beliefs of health care providers. How is your study different?

Most studies have focused specifically on patient populations. Although there are reports on health care providers’ views and beliefs, most of them are limited either to specific vaccines or to examining specific health care provider categories. Our study covers views and perspectives on most of the vaccines available in the U.S. We also have a very diverse survey population of health care workers and students.

Please share your background and how you became interested in science.

I was born and raised in India. My parents are both zoologists - my father is an endocrinologist, and I spent a lot of time in his lab learning from him. My mother is an assistant professor of sericulture (the study of silkworms). Their work made enough of an impression on me that I decided to pursue science; at the same time, I like to interact with people, so medical practice was always in the back of my mind.

After receiving my master’s degree in biotechnology in India, I joined a U.N. research lab where I studied viruses, including the now-infamous SARS coronavirus. In 2009, I came to the U.S. to earn my Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, after which I accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). During these years of research, I studied and evaluated gene therapy for mitochondrial diseases, including a potential treatment for Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, an inherited form of vision loss.

How did you finally end up in medical school and at TouroCOM?

During my research and training, I was always associated with hospitals, collaborating with physicians, and talking about patients. I wanted to interact with patients directly, but the final decision to apply to medical school came when my son was born and suffered birth trauma. His doctor was a DO at CHOP, and her management of his care was holistic and inspiring, leading me to finally apply - and to DO schools. My wife often travels to New York City on business, so we wanted to find a school nearby. I attended an open house at TouroCOM and loved the school and the faculty. I’m grateful to TouroCOM for giving me the chance to follow my passion.