COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout: A Call to Action for Greater Patient Engagement

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Vaccine or flu shot in injection needle. Doctor working with patient's arm. Physician or nurse giving vaccination and immunity to virus, influenza or HPV with syringe. Appointment with medical expert.

By Chris Nicholson, CEO, mPulse Mobile

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has posed a huge public health challenge that’s required a coordinated effort between government agencies and stakeholders across the healthcare ecosystem. With people isolated, many living and working remotely, ongoing efforts to drive vaccinations have resulted in a fascinating case study on the effectiveness of technology when combined with well-targeted patient engagement campaigns. As a result, efforts have significantly accelerated the adoption of AI and digital communication tools through virtually every part of the healthcare sector, but this progress didn’t come without its share of substantial challenges.

Tackling a Trio of Challenges 

The major challenges facing this public health effort fall into three broad categories: lack of consistency in distribution approach, obstacles to patient access and limitations in health literacy.

At the onset of vaccine distribution, there was no unified approach. Not only that, but each state and county was constrained by limited supply and unique population needs. The lack of consistency across the nation created a lot of questions about who was eligible for a vaccine, how to book an appointment, and where to go for information. As a result, patients were not able to find the right answers, oftentimes turning to the wrong source and receiving the wrong information, and healthcare organizations were completely overwhelmed by the sharp influx of inbound calls from concerned individuals.  

Months later, we’ve established a consistent approach to dispersal, but we’re still battling the traditional issues of patient access that are expected in large scale public health or wellness efforts. These issues have further posed significant obstacles to equitable distribution. For example, limited access to transportation, difficulty identifying a location and time for vaccination, language barriers, and other social determinants of health (SDOH) such as socio-economic status have put traditionally underserved populations on a track to subpar vaccination rates.

The last major challenge facing vaccine rollout has been limited health literacy and skepticism regarding vaccine safety. Consider that when the vaccine program was first introduced in December 2020, Pew Research found that fewer than 40% of the U.S. population intended to get vaccinated. Many patients indicated a belief that they didn’t need a vaccine due to previous exposure or because they weren’t at-risk for serious COVID-19 complications. This called for proactive outreach to drive action, as well as increased education around complex public health issues, such as encouraging patients to think beyond their individual needs and understand that vulnerable patients rely on herd immunity for protection.

Finding a Unique Set of Solutions 

Faced with a trio of challenges, the greater public health community needed to find the right solutions, and quickly. Industry leaders and public health decisionmakers realized that a unique combination of proactive outreach, tailored education, and innovative communication methods could drive higher levels of patient engagement to help overcome barriers to vaccination. 

  1. Proactive Outreach: Establishing a consistent line of communication with members and patients was and continues to be pivotal in building greater awareness and trust. Once established, the onus is on the payer and/or provider to share real-time updates (to the best of their ability), predict questions and provide answers, and proactively share helpful and educational resources. The more reliable vaccine information patients and members can access, the more empowered they are. Taking it a step further, health systems can tailor their outreach based on eligibility to further reduce questions and improve the overall experience. 
  1. Tailored Education: The path to better understanding patient populations and their sentiments starts with opening a valuable communication channel that can be used for education.Then, it is crucial to determine which segments are questioning current Covid vaccines. Once this population(s) is identified, open a communication path on channels and formats they prefer.This could include videos of providers or experts from nearby or similar communities discussing vaccine safety or digital fotonovelas featuring identifiable characters. People resonate with different messages and formats, and the key to better outcomes is appealing to their specific preferences. 
  1. Innovative Communication Methods: Conversational AI has provided a highly impactful tool to engage traditionally difficult-to-engage patients in communities facing access challenges. Health plans and local agencies can deliver SMS patient outreach that allows for 2-way communication, accounts for language preferences, and uses tailored messaging to fast-track patients to information targeted to their needs. For example, patients can respond to conversational AI to share what barriers they’re facing so the payer organization or agency can take proper action, sharing links to more local information. Traditional SMS messaging allowing for Yes/No responses hardly offers this level of targeted engagement.

By leveraging this holistic approach to COVID-19 vaccine engagement – proactive outreach, tailored education, and innovative communication methods – we have been able to drastically increase the percentage of individuals that have received the vaccine. In just a few short weeks, 70% of U.S. adults over the age of 16 are predicted to have received their first dose. This is a substantial accomplishment considering where we started. Health systems have answered the call to greater patient engagement, but there is still more work to be done to capture mindshare of the remaining 30%. We must continue this coordinated effort to ensure every population is informed, educated and empowered to take the next step in their health.

Author Bio

Chris Nicholson is co-founder & CEO of mPulse Mobile. Chris has over 20 years of experience in healthcare and digital technology from working in Fortune 100 companies to dynamic startups. As CEO, he leads the company vision of creating a new approach to healthcare communications, reimagining health engagement to inspire healthier lives and deeper relationships between healthcare organizations and their consumers.

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