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Provider Spotlight: Dr. James Conway, MD

Dr. Conway has an active clinical consulting practice managing pediatric infectious disease patients, as well as directing the pediatric infectious diseases fellowship training program. He is also one of the associate directors for the UW-Madison Global Health Institute, focused on developing the next generation of health science students into leaders. He recognizes the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to collaborative engagement to address health disparities worldwide – both domestic and international. Dr. Conway's area of interest is primarily around vaccine preventable diseases, including studying vaccine effectiveness & working on strengthening immunization systems – both in the U.S. and all around the world.

Why do you feel the HPV vaccine is important? ​ Why do you recommend the HPV vaccination?

HPV immunization has the potential to be a genuine ‘game-changer’ for an entire generation. These vaccines offer protection against a wide array of cancers in both males and females, as well as other diseases caused by HPV. The acquisition of HPV often happens early in life, and yet can lead to devastating consequences for individuals and their families over many decades. In addition, our health systems have directed resources towards unnecessarily treating conditions that can be prevented, for many many years. The HPV vaccine provides an opportunity to prevent an incredibly common infection, that most people before this vaccine would either be 'infected with', or which they will at least be 'affected by’…or both!

How do you communicate that to patients/families/colleagues? ​ How do you communicate about HPV and the HPV vaccine to patients/families/colleagues?​

I believe that we need to listen and understand where people are coming from and what their particular questions are. No longer can we look at health messaging as a ‘one size fits all’ approach. With that said, we need to be clear that this is an incredibly well-studied and safe product, which offers cost-effective prevention, and should be equally available for all! This is the 2nd cancer vaccine ever and has the potential to dramatically change lives for an entire generation – if people will just choose to offer it to every pre-teen.

What is a success you have had in communicating about the HPV vaccine? ​ What is one HPV-specific conversation you had that you consider a success?

I have had many conversations with people from every walk of life – politicians, media, parents, physicians, nurses, teachers, students, and of course patients. When people start to understand how incredibly common HPV infections are (They cause plantar’s warts? They cause laryngeal polyps? They cause head & neck cancers? They cause cervical cancers? You can get an HPV infection without having sexual intercourse? Yes yes yes yes and yes!!!) And how easy they are to prevent with this vaccine….it’s hard to argue.

What is a challenge you have had in communicating about the HPV vaccine and how did you handle it? ​ What is one specific challenge you have had, either with a patient or colleague, about HPV and/or the vaccination?

Early in the course of introduction back in 2006, there was too much emphasis on HPV as sexually transmitted infections. This was largely seen in educating pediatric and adolescent providers who had never actually seen HPV disease. While sexual activity is often a factor in transmission, it’s not the only one - and that topic proved difficult for both parents and healthcare folks to discuss. People don’t like to imagine their own children or patients as sexually active. Once we realized that this was really a cancer vaccine…the conversations have been much simpler.

What piece of advice do you want to leave other​s​ with about the HPV vaccine?​

Let people know what you believe – that this is a cancer vaccine, that should be given to everyone, and that everyone deserves to be fully protected against HPV – before there’s any chance for exposure. People trust their medical professionals – but we need to be clear in our support for particular preventive health measures such as vaccines. We should also never fool ourselves into thinking we can identify which patients need it or when to do it. Everyone deserves the right to be protected from HPV equally, which means offering it to everyone as early as possible, before there is behavior that would place them at risk.

What brought you on your path to being an advocate for the HPV vaccination?

I have seen too many children suffer unnecessarily from vaccine preventable diseases for many many years. Realizing that this particular vaccine could change the lives of entire generation and that there was reluctance to push it and offer it equally to all made me adamant that I needed to get more involved.

Where do you find resources and education about the HPV vaccine? What resources do you rely on to gather accurate HPV information?

If you could offer one piece of advice to providers struggling to increase their HPV immunization rates, what would it be?

Don’t reinvent the wheel – there are lots of great resources available, and many techniques already being used. [My] best advice is to take an interdisciplinary approach – and use people from all walks of life to help share information. Make sure every person in every office has had a chance to really learn about it, and understand the importance of messaging. Every conversation matters – and it can go both ways. Everyone needs to be unified in advocating for every patient and family.

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