Doctor hopes buttons worn by health care workers will encourage vaccination in Toronto shelters

An Ontario emergency room doctor who has worked with unhoused people in the Toronto's shelter system has come up with a new way to encourage COVID-19 vaccination.

Button Project aims to spark conversations among workers and clients, doctor says

These two buttons, part of what is called The Button Project, are designed to spark conversations about COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness. (Submitted by The Button Project)

An Ontario emergency room doctor who has worked with unhoused people in the Toronto's shelter system has come up with a new way to encourage COVID-19 vaccination.

That way is called the Button Project. It involves the wearing of cartoon-style buttons by health care workers in shelters to spark conversations about COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness. The bright orange buttons are pinned to clothing, specifically scrubs.

The project is a collaboration between Dr. Shobana Ananth and the Health Design Studio at Ontario College of Art and Design University.

Ananth, who works with Inner City Health Associates and is a clinical lecturer at the University of Toronto's department of family and community medicine, says the project has produced two button designs. Each design features a QR code that, when scanned, links workers to a web page that answers questions about COVID-19 vaccines. The idea was to create simple but attractive messaging, she said.

"I thought, you know what, we should provide health care workers who are vaccinated with a means of talking about their lived experience to peers and patients," Ananth told CBC Radio's Fresh Air on Saturday.

"What I thought of, as simple as it sounds, is a button. The button design is very, very important. I truly saw the intersection of design and medicine and the delivery of care. It's a simple button with a QR code that the health care worker could use to log on to this page of frequently asked questions."

On one button, a QR code appears on top of a heart shape made up of tiny versions of the virus, while on the other, a QR code appears next to an cartoon version of the novel coronavirus, with a bubble coming out of a spike in the virus and a question mark appearing in the bubble.

LISTEN | CBC host Jason D'Souza interviews Dr. Shobana Ananth and OCAD U's Kate Sellen about The Button Project:

The Button Project was started by emergency room physician, Dr. Shobana Ananth and Kate Sellen, an Associate professor and Canada Research Chair at the Faculty of Design at OCAD University. 14:05

According to a survey conducted at one site, 87 to 94 per cent of health care workers who used the buttons said they made a difference. They said the buttons achieved the objective of starting a conversation among peers and clients. Workers reported it helped build their confidence in discussing vaccines and disclosing their vaccination status.

About 200 buttons are now in circulation but more are in the works, she said.

Only about 50 per cent of people experiencing homelessness who are in shelters are double vaccinated, according to a recent memo issued by Toronto Public Health. That rate needs to increase, Ananth said.

Button design 'appealing' and 'friendly,' prof says

Kate Sellen, an associate professor in the faculty of design and Canada Research Chair in health design at OCAD U, said the university's Health Design Studio created the design for the buttons, which she called "appealing" and "friendly." The studio has worked on COVID-19 communication materials for other projects, she said.

"Often design is deceptively simple. And behind the button is a lot of information that we had to go through," she said. 

"With vaccine hesitancy, there is a lot of fear, there is a lot of misinformation. There may be kind of a feeling that this is a difficult topic to talk about. We wanted to make the buttons really approachable."

The orange colour of the button is designed to stand out against the grey teal colour of scrubs. Feedback from the community led to the design of two buttons, she said. The QR codes are integrated in the designs, she added.

"It invites questions in two ways: What is the button? And what is the QR code and what happens if I use the QR code?"

A young person gets a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up clinic in Victoria Park subway station in Toronto, on Aug. 24, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Sellen said there is room for improvement when it comes to communicating public health messages to counter vaccine hesitancy in Ontario.

Ananth, for her part, said she wanted the designs to be open to everyone.

"It's pure graphics. It doesn't have words. You don't have to be literate. You don't have to speak a particular language to be engaged by it and to ask questions of it."

The Ontario government reported on Saturday that 21,614,205 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered to date. Health Minister Christine Elliott says 85.7 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 years or older have received at least one dose, while 80.1 per cent have received both doses.

With files from Fresh Air