Is the COVID Vaccine the Shot in the Arm We Need for Healthcare Access?

Meeting patients where they are has been a rallying cry for the past several years, but healthcare is still challenged by access challenges. The COVID vaccine might just be the shot in the arm we need to make meaningful progress towards improved healthcare access for all patients.

I recently had the chance to sit down to discuss healthcare access with Pamela Landis, Vice President of Digital Engagement at Hackensack Meridian Health and Chris Gervais, CTO & CSO at Kyruus. Although COVID and the COVID vaccine wasn’t the focus of our discussion, it quickly became a lightening rod that energized our conversation.

Patient Access

Kyruus defines patient access as: The ability to ensure that patients can obtain timely care from the right provider in a convenient location. There is a lot to unpack in that definition, but the three key parts are:

  1. Timely care
  2. Right provider
  3. Convenient location

It does a patient no good to be matched with a specialist that is located beyond the transportation reach of the patient. Nor does it do any good if the appointment is set at a time when the patient is normally at work. All three factors must come together in order for care to be truly accessible.

Access Technologies Can Help

There are several technologies and tools that can be used to help improve patient access, including:

  • Provider matching
  • Online appointment booking
  • Appointment reminders
  • Asynchronous patient communications (email, text, portals, etc.)
  • Patient education
  • Patient screening/electronic forms

“As we move into 2021, we will need more tools,” stated Landis. “Online scheduling, especially where patients can quickly and easily self-schedule, is going to be in high demand. In order to roll out the vaccine effectively it’s going to require us to use online self-scheduling, texting, and patient screening tools like we never have before.”

An Opportunity with the COVID Vaccine

According to Landis, the state of New Jersey has set itself a goal of having 70% of its citizens vaccinated for COVID-19 by July – “That would mean roughly 6.3 Million people. At two doses each, that translates into 12.6 Million patient visits in just six months. That’s going to be challenging without technology.”

“How are we going to manage 10 lanes of cars, each 50 cars deep?” asked Gervais in agreement with Landis. “That is going to require some unconventional thinking. It may be that vaccinations won’t be happening in a classic healthcare setting. It might be in mall or sports arena parking lots.”

Regardless of the venue, there will certainly be a need to bring patient access technologies to bear. First and foremost, patients will need to be educated on the vaccine and what to expect if they get it. On top of that, patients will need clear instructions on where to go and when.

Although it may be possible (one day) to administer the initial dose of the vaccine to patients in a “drop-in”, non-prioritized manner, the second dose will absolutely need to be scheduled. In our conversation Gervais mentioned the idea of using a QR code at the exit of the vaccination facility so that patients can simply scan to make their 2nd appointment and start to receive reminders for it.

The technology exists. It just needs to be tuned to the COVID vaccine challenge.

Beyond COVID

“We have a golden opportunity here to really turn the dial on digital healthcare,” said Landis. “If we make it easy, safe and convenient for patients to get vaccinated, then we can encourage them afterwards to get their test results online or their records or communicate with their care team electronically.”

It’s ironic that COVID could prove to be digital health’s watershed moment – for patients as well as healthcare organizations. Up to this point, electronic access for patients to healthcare has been spotty at best. Some organizations have done a great job with offering access technologies, like those provided by Kyruus’ suite of products. While others have remained content with old school contact centers where patients must book through an agent.

“Convenience is quickly becoming a requirement of access-to-care,” said Gervais. “Patients want the ability to self-direct, self-schedule and easily get their medical records. They want to find it, schedule it and pay for it as conveniently as buying movie tickets. The COVID vaccine will put pressure on healthcare to be as efficient as possible.”

Get Feedback From Patients Directly

One of the best ways to design workflows, processes and systems that are convenient for patients is to get them involved in co-designing them. Landis recommends starting with a small challenge. Find a local patient advocate and bring them in for a meeting where you can listen to their feedback.

“We are very fortunate at Hackensack to have a fantastic patient advocate that is local to us,” Landis shared. “Grace Cordovano is a treasure. Not only does she speak from the patient’s perspective, but she also can share that perspective with an executive audience. Grace is knowledgeable and does the background research to back up her claims. It has been an absolute pleasure to collaborate with her.”

I concur with Landis. First, Grace Cordovano is indeed a treasure. Second, getting a patient’s perspective is vital to designing better experiences, not just for patients but for staff as well. I believe this to be especially true when it comes to patient access.

When designed well, patient access solutions achieve operational efficiency for the healthcare provider while offering convenience and ease-of-use for patients. We have a cautionary tale from the early versions of patient portals. These early portals were not optimized for patients (or staff for that matter) and as a result they were never adopted or accepted. Despite repeated promotion and educational programs, these portals languished.

As patients got more involved, healthcare organizations slowly began offering tools that patients want, like the ability to quickly find a doctor, self-scheduling, and electronic communications with their care team.

As Gervais and Landis both stressed, there is a unique opportunity here to improve patient access as the COVID vaccine becomes more available. If we can deploy the right technologies in a way that makes the vaccination process, easy, convenient and as stress free as possible, COVID may ultimately turn out to be the catalyst for more investment in patient access.

Like Gervais and Landis, I too believe that it is time to make meaningful progress in this area.

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About the author

Colin Hung

Colin Hung

Colin Hung is the co-founder of the #hcldr (healthcare leadership) tweetchat one of the most popular and active healthcare social media communities on Twitter. Colin speaks, tweets and blogs regularly about healthcare, technology, marketing and leadership. He is currently an independent marketing consultant working with leading healthIT companies. Colin is a member of #TheWalkingGallery. His Twitter handle is: @Colin_Hung.

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