By Paul Brient, chief product officer, athenahealth.
On December 14, 2020, less than one year after COVID-19 sent our nation into lockdown and a period of uncertainty, the U.S. began rolling out a new set of vaccines. COVID-19 challenged and stretched our healthcare system, with great strain on our heroic providers, hospitals, and pharmaceutical professionals.
Since the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine, we’ve improved distribution greatly and as of May 10, 2021, the FDA even expanded Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents aged 12-15, further accelerating the vaccine rollout across the nation. As we’ve taken great strides recently to expand immunization to the wider population, we can reflect on the progress we’ve seen across the healthcare industry.
The past year has been filled with healthcare IT innovation which includes the almost instantaneous shift toward telehealth technologies, with utilization increasing from less than one percent to more than one-third of all visits, and new enhancements including virtual check-ins, COVID-19 screeners, virtual waiting rooms, and high-volume vaccine workflows.
One thing that healthcare IT companies were unprepared for was the incredible spike in inbound patient appointment request volumes as testing (and vaccine distributions) ramped up. In the early days of vaccine availability, scheduling systems found their servers crushed by demand. This sudden and unprecedented surge of patients attempting to schedule appointments exposed scalability issues in many scheduling systems, rendering it challenging to book appointments online.
True cloud-based SaaS systems, such as athenahealth, fared better than traditional on premise or remote hosted systems. Even so, the first release of roughly 6,000 appointment inquiries at one of athenahealth’s New Jersey customers in January resulted in an immediate onslaught of traffic and exposed several previously undetected configuration issues. Fortunately, these configuration issues were able to be quickly resolved, and athenahealth was able to support and meet its clients’ vaccine workflow needs and the intensity of the appointment request volume throughout the rest of the vaccination push.
With the high number of COVID-19 cases (currently 33.3 million in the U.S. alone), the COVID-19 vaccination effort has brought forth a new set of administrative challenges. Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech require two doses and, while this is not a new concept for vaccines, the scale, scope, and importance of ensuring that patients follow-up and receive their second dose required a myriad of steps.
Vaccine registries (and perhaps soon: proof of vaccination or “vaccination passports”) have gone from the domain of a few public health officials to the key to winning the battle with the virus. Complicating this issue, every state across the nation has its own vaccine registry — each with different requirements and approaches. As a result, the vaccine administration process has faced scrutiny and received a bit of an overhaul. These reconstructed processes, much like the incorporation of virtual visits into care delivery options, will pay dividends well into the future.
While the healthcare industry has made great strides in inoculating patients, there are still lessons to be learned, especially when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine workflows and the role EHRs play in supporting providers and patients. Here are the ways in which EHR technologies can and are improving COVID-19 vaccine workflows to heal industry pain points: