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By Vik Krishnan
If news headlines are any indicator, researchers seem to learn something new about the COVID-19 virus nearly every day, including its variants and the efficacy of the many different vaccines and treatments. Such advances in knowledge, however, also pose challenges for health systems as they struggle to manage vaccine distribution, including the rapidly evolving CDC guidelines that detail for whom and when vaccines and booster shots are appropriate. For example, children ages 5 – 11 can now get immunized for COVID-19. And recent guidelines allow for the mixing and matching of vaccines for booster shots, which are recommended for everyone over the age of 18, and certain individuals over 12 years old who are immunocompromised.
Personalized communications and EHR integration essential to vaccine management
Given this dynamic environment, effective vaccination planning and distribution for health systems requires putting a flexible patient engagement strategy in place to provide personalized patient education and seamless vaccine appointment scheduling and rescheduling. This is particularly important in the wake of increased demand for booster shots, even as government entities, healthcare advocates, employers and others continue to implore the roughly one third of Americans who still have not received a single dose of the vaccine to get immunized. Fortunately, these strategies can be readily accomplished through automated patient engagement.
In its early days, automated patient engagement technologies primarily consisted of one-way SMS or text messages, emails and phone-based reminders. However, the most sophisticated platforms now enable two-way communication for routine tasks that include appointment management, pre- and post-procedure instructions as well as education campaigns, billing inquiries, and preventive care recalls. This two-way communication even allows for real-time rescheduling of appointments directly from an SMS message when these platforms are embedded within leading electronic health records (EHRs). Some can even enable customized messaging that mimics human dialogue through chatbot technologies. Together, these capabilities can dramatically streamline and personalize all types of vaccine outreach and scheduling.
Automated patient engagement streamlines the booster vaccine process
This technology-enabled process starts with the ability to easily identify patients eligible to receive a booster vaccine by employing systems that can push and pull data directly from the EHR. Even if booster shot guidance continues to evolve, health systems using this approach will be able to quickly adjust this targeting, and outreach can be timed based on both vaccination date and availability.
SMS-enabled messaging is then an ideal channel to educate patients about why they need the vaccine and promote its safety, right from the smart phones they use every day, and allow them to easily schedule or reschedule an appointment directly from this text. Finally, these platforms can send patients reminders at the appropriate interval before the date and time of their scheduled vaccination. This integrated, four-stage approach—targeting, education, self-scheduling and reminders—can dramatically reduce the risk of no-shows and decrease the need to discard unused vaccines, thereby eliminating waste.
This model has already garnered results for several healthcare organizations. For example, one Virginia health system scheduled 11,000 vaccination appointments in just 56 hours using an automated engagement platform, and another health system in New Jersey scheduled 40,000 patients via this outreach in a single weekend. These results were realized without the need for additional staff, overtime pay or other internal resources.
Where patient portals fall short
The use of automated engagement platforms can also help health systems eliminate the challenges that stem from over-reliance on patient portals to manage vaccine distribution. Unfortunately, low adoption rates of these portals means that many patients simply don’t rely on them for timely information like the kind needed to promote vaccine adherence.
Another unique challenge with the patient portal model was experienced by a network of primary and specialty care practices serving more than 500,000 patients. In the early days of vaccine distribution, one New York City practice network became so overwhelmed by member requests for the vaccine that its portal crashed. This mean that patients lost access not only to information about vaccine scheduling, but also their ability to manage information about other routine care needs.
In summary, automated patient engagement technology is a critical resource in giving health systems the ability to encourage patient education and action through personalized, two-way communications ─ including easily and rapidly self-scheduling vaccinations and booster shot appointments. It will become even more instrumental as guidance about vaccines continues to evolve for specific segments like frontline workers. And unlike patient portals and older one-way reminder technologies, these systems will ensure that healthcare organizations can communicate with patients at the speed of healthcare change while also giving them a “voice” in this process.
Vik Krishnan, MBA, is General Manager of Intrado Digital Workflows, which includes HouseCalls Pro, a leading automated digital patient engagement platform. He has 20 years of healthcare experience, including as co-founder/CEO of CipherHealth. Krishnan majored in biomedical engineering before obtaining an MBA from Harvard Business School.