Can we talk about needle pain? Q&A with Amy Baxter

We often ask why parents refuse to vaccinate their children, but there is an important aspect of vaccinations that we rarely openly discuss: needle fear. During TEDMED 2014’s “Don’t You Dare Talk About This” session, entrepreneur and pediatrician Amy Baxter challenged us to change the way we think about needle phobia – an issue that, she says, has important public health implications. We reached out to her with a few questions.

Photo by Bret Hartman, TEDMED 2014.
Amy Baxter on the TEDMED stage. [Bret Hartman, TEDMED 2014]

Why does your talk matter now?

Because vaccines save so many lives, we in healthcare are reluctant to allow any dialogue about whether the number or way we give shots could be damaging. Yet, people feel uncomfortable with the number of injections kids get. The natural unease at watching painful jabs, over and over, is at work when well-meaning parents pick and choose, or refuse vaccination altogether. The lack of communication about the best way to deliver vaccines causes mistrust, and contributes to families feeling that their main source of health information – their family doctor – might not be right about insisting on vaccines. The erosion of doctor/patient trust, and refusal to get vaccinated, will ultimately hurt us all.

By showing the long-term health consequences of too many painful injections at once, my talk presents evidence that we need to have fewer, or less painful, shots. I want people to learn that children’s fear of needles is a natural cause and effect, and is not indicative of a personal weakness. When the next pandemic requires universal vaccination, what happens if and when the 63% of now needle-phobic children refuse?

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want to inspire others who recognize a problem and, no matter what it is, to act. I am proud that I noticed the problem of needle pain; in medicine, we’re trained to ignore pain, or treat it as a necessary evil. Once I realized needle pain does not build character, and can impact children for a lifetime, I used every means I had to conquer the problem.

Once we recognize that our indifference to needle pain can affect compliance, we can change how we vaccinate. If I can help people realize that their shame of needle fear is not a personal failing, more people can receive health care without dread. If nothing else, I hope a doctor will watch this talk and be compassionate and accommodating when a parent says “You know, can we split these shots up into two different visits?”

What advice would you give to other aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs?

Before devoting a decade of your life to a dream, try the idea out on people who don’t love you. Ask them: Is this something they would buy? Is this what the world has been waiting for? If you had money, would you invest in this idea?

Businesses succeed because someone has a passion and can communicate it to the otherwise indifferent. When you do have a great idea, stick to it and never, ever give up. But before you sacrifice all social currency, work insane hours, and give up time with loved ones (time that you’ll never get back), make sure the idea is worth it.

Who or what has been your main source of inspiration that drives you to innovate?

Robert A. Heinlein was a science fiction author who dreamed up worlds that were socially and technologically different from what surrounded him. He invented the water bed, electronically manipulated Waldoes, and inspired Peter Diamandis and Elon Musk (both of whom have been awarded Heinlein Prizes for promoting commercial space flight). While trying to make a buck with his fiction, he also remained true to principles of unwavering integrity, steadfastness, loyalty, and creative self-reliance. Because he changed the world, I have the courage to try to do the same.