Research explores attitudes to digital consent for school vaccinations

Published: 17 April 2024

Robert Owen Centre study on behalf of Public Health Scotland looks at parents' and practitioners' attitudes towards digital consent

Researchers from the Robert Owen Centre at the University of Glasgow conducted a study on behalf of Public Health Scotland exploring attitudes and perceptions of practitioners and parents regarding digital consent for vaccinations of school-age children.

The school represents a key location for vaccination delivery. Some vaccinations are delivered yearly (such as flu) and begin in primary school, while others such as HPV, tetanus/diphtheria/polio, and MenACWY (Meningitis, sepsis and septicaemia) are delivered once and in high school.

Before vaccinations, children are provided with a consent pack (containing letter, information leaflet and consent form) to be delivered to parents. Parents/carers are required to complete the consent form and send it back to school.

While this process is currently delivered on paper, elsewhere there have been pilots using online or digital methods of collecting parental consent for vaccinations

(known as digital or e-consent). For example, in locations in England, health boards have piloted web portals with a unique sign in for parents, or an app for parents to download. But so far, no pilots have been conducted in Scotland.

The research carried out by Joanne Neary, Kevin Lowden and Stuart Hall explored the attitudes regarding replacing the current paper consent forms with a digital version. The university research was conducted across four local authorities (Argyll and Bute, Dundee, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire) and took on board points of view from individuals working in schools and parents, carers and guardians.

Some 103 parents and eighteen practitioners (across three high schools and six primaries) took part. Using a mix of online surveys and individual interviews, the research focused on attitudes to general school digital communication, how schools support those who struggle to access this information, how vaccination consent is currently organised, and their attitudes and perceptions to digital consent for vaccinations.

For practitioners, there was a general feeling that many of their families would welcome this change. However, they were also able to identify families that would experience significant barriers in engaging with this new way of working, as these families also experienced barriers to engaging with general school digital communication.

These barriers related to issues of poverty, geography and education with descriptions of poor parental levels of literacy, low confidence in using online forms (linking with digital literacy), limited access to internet or internet-ready devices, or language barriers. Others referred to a general feeling of disengagement from trying 'new' technologies.

When asked how the digital consent platform could support those parents who may need additional assistance, several ideas were offered, including the need for simple, clear and accessible technology, step-by-step guides to an online system and a retention of paper consent forms for those who needed them.

While the consent format may change if online methods are introduced, many practitioners still viewed that the school would have a continued role and responsibility for vaccination consent, particularly in following up with those families who did not return a form, require additional support, or need further information.

You can read the full evaluation report, which includes the research carried out with parents and carers, here.

First published: 17 April 2024

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