This fall, the United States enters a new phase in the Covid-19 pandemic with the national roll-out of booster vaccines. While the CDC already recommended booster shots for the immunocompromised, there has been extensive debate about the broad criteria for future eligibility (who should receive an additional shot and when).
According to guidance from the CDC in late September, booster shots are recommended for people 65 and older, adult residents of long-term care facilities, and people 50- to 64-years-old with underlying medical conditions at least six months after receiving the Pfizer vaccine series. Other groups may receive the booster shot six months after receiving the Pfizer series, including younger adults with underlying medical conditions and people who are at increased risk because of their work setting.
However, given the amount of discussion and confusion surrounding this issue, it is very possible that these recommendations will continue to evolve. For that reason, health systems should be prepared to quickly adjust their vaccine distribution approach based on new guidance.
Part of that planning involves having a flexible patient engagement strategy in place to provide personalized patient education and seamless appointment scheduling and rescheduling. Fortunately, these strategies can be readily accomplished via an automated patient engagement approach.
One of the most important takeaways from the early days of the pandemic is that digital health technologies, including automated patient engagement solutions, have come of age. Initially, automated patient engagement primarily consisted of notification tools that left a voice mail or sent a one-way message via email or text.
Today, the most sophisticated platforms enable two-way communication for routine tasks (often referred to as workflows), including everything from appointment management and pre- and post-procedure instructions to 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.
Personalization and customization is achieved through chatbot technologies that mimic human dialogue. Additionally, deep electronic health record (EHR) integration can push and pull patient-specific data to and from the EHR, eliminating the need for manual information sharing while preserving accuracy and compliance with the healthcare organization’s EHR serving as the “single source of truth.”
From the earliest days of the pandemic, health systems drew on automated engagement technology to solve communication workflows such as sending broadcast messages to patients letting them know which health facilities were open or where they could get tested for Covid-19. Yet, many overlooked the importance of this approach for vaccine management, instead relying on other methods to schedule appointments and send reminders, like patient portals. Unfortunately, low adoption rates of these portals left both healthcare organizations and patients frustrated and may have contributed to low engagement in vaccine programs.
Another challenge with the patient portal model was experienced by a network of primary and specialty care practices during the initial roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccines. In early 2021, this New York practice network became so overwhelmed by member requests for the vaccine that its portal crashed. Not only did that crash impact the primary campaign goal to get patients scheduled for vaccines, some even lost access to the patient portal to manage routine care.
Incidents like these have emphasized the benefits of using an automated patient engagement platform for vaccine appointment management. For example, a New Jersey community health system found success in this automated approach and scheduled 40,000 vaccination appointments in a single weekend. Patient engagement and follow-through was high and by virtue of the way the platform functioned, there were no system crashes impacting other patients’ access to information or care.
Drawing on these real-world lessons from the initial vaccine rollout, health systems can streamline the ongoing outreach and booster vaccination process by leveraging their automated patient engagement platform to increase vaccine and booster uptake:
- Quickly identify which patients are eligible to receive the booster vaccine by using EHR data (and adjust this approach based on the very latest booster shot guidance).
- Educate patients about why they need a Covid-19 booster and provide details on the latest vaccine safety statistics via SMS, voice, or email in their preferred language.
- Customize messaging for the type of booster (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson) patients require, based on which vaccine they previously received.
- Automate rolling outreach to eligible patients based on vaccination date and availability.
- Allow patients to self-schedule via SMS or directly connect to a call center.
- Automatically send patients reminders about the date and time of their scheduled booster.
- Reduce the risk of no-shows and decrease the need to discard unused vaccines—a huge waste given vaccine shortages around the world.
- Take advantage of scalability functions to reach a small cohort or vast number of patients quickly with no added burden on staff.
The rising number of Covid-19 cases from the Delta variant continues to cause challenges for health systems, unnecessary deaths for those unvaccinated, and a high degree of burnout for medical staff. However, by automating patient engagement, these organizations can reduce the burden on both resources and personnel in fighting this pandemic while improving efficiency in the administration of booster vaccines.
Photo: peterschreiber.media, Getty Images