If you’ve tried to get an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine, you know how frustrating the process can be. People spend hours obsessively updating websites, hoping an appointment will open somewhere. They scan Facebook groups for tips and inside information. One writer compared it to Soviet-style cabbage tails. Competition for spaces will only get worse when the COVID-19 vaccination priority list is opened to the general public.
It does not have to be this way. Much of this misery comes from poorly designed vaccine registration websites, but the problem is more fundamental. As an expert in healthcare operations and vaccine supply chains, I have closely followed the difficulties in connecting COVID-19 vaccine doses to people. I believe that the best solution for vaccine appointment scheduling lies in creating a reliable comprehensive pre-registration system. The United States is now near half a million deaths from COVID-19, and rapidly spreading novel variants of the coronavirus add to the urgency. As states strive to accelerate vaccines and try to prevent their limited doses from going to waste, some of them are testing this approach. Why did the traditional model go so wrong? The traditional model of vaccine registration does not work when the demand for vaccines far exceeds the supply. Under that model, the only way to get vaccinated is to book an appointment. Naturally, the fear of being left out leads people to try to sign up as soon as meeting spaces are available. This leads to a flood of people constantly updating the same websites for the few appointments available. Even if every state had one-time dating websites that didn’t crash with high volume, the limited supply of vaccines would mean that most dating slots would fill up quickly. That could make it even harder for non-tech savvy people to get the vaccine. To fix the broken vaccine scheduling system, we must break this cycle. What pre-registration can solve Most people have fairly realistic expectations about when they will be vaccinated. Your anxiety stems from the fear of being left out. To address this anxiety, the system must be designed to assure people that they will receive vaccines within a reasonable time. In Israel, which is a world leader in vaccination against COVID-19, citizens do not need to actively sign up for vaccination appointments. Rather, they are notified when they become eligible via text messages and can then make an appointment. States can echo this “push” system by creating a comprehensive pre-registration portal where everyone signs in once and is notified to schedule appointments when their turn comes. The pre-registration step helps avoid waves of people trying to get appointments at the same time, which can crash computer systems, as happened in Massachusetts on February 18. A good system will make it easy for people to check their position in the vaccine queue at any time. time, provide an estimated time to vaccination based on frequently updated supply information, and then send notifications as the date approaches. Behind the system, vaccine doses can be assigned among eligible users in the registry through a lottery system. A well-designed pre-registration system can also help prevent vaccine doses from being wasted due to no-shows. With an active waiting list, vaccine planners can quickly match supply with demand and offer appointments to people a few days in advance instead of scheduling appointments weeks in advance when the supply is uncertain. Research on appointment scheduling has shown that you are more likely to not show up during long wait times. West Virginia gives an example West Virginia uses a statewide pre-registration system and has so far been more successful in vaccinating its population than almost all other states. Control the process from pre-registration to appointment. To receive the vaccine, almost all residents, with a few exceptions, must use the state system, with options to register online or by phone. Minnesota just launched a similar system. “We still have a frustratingly limited vaccine supply from the federal government, but all Minnesotans should know that the opportunity to get a vaccine will come. Today, we are connecting them directly to that process, “said Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, announcing the pre-registration system on February 18. More states should follow suit as more of the general population becomes eligible for the vaccine in the coming months. In Massachusetts, where a vaccine registration website crashed shortly after launch, nearly every member of the state Congressional delegation has urged Governor Charlie Baker to launch a pre-registration system. Some other states already have limited pre-registration systems that could be expanded. Coordination still required Pre-registration can create confusion if the process is not coordinated and users don’t know what to expect. In Virginia, for example, counties created their own pre-registration systems, but when the CVS pharmacy chain announced it was accepting appointments, users didn’t know what to do. Most Virginia counties are now switching to a statewide pre-registration system. In Santa Cruz County, California, residents have had problems with a pre-registration portal that does not provide confirmation or an estimated time for vaccination. The “trade-off between efficiency and fairness” has become a buzzword when talking about COVID-19 vaccination. With a limited supply of vaccines, the traditional registry model has proven to be inefficient and inequitable. Moving away from that model and establishing unique pre-registration systems is a key to solving the painful process of vaccine scheduling. Now Read: COVID-19 is on the Run – Expect the Pandemic to Be Under Control by Memorial Day Tinglong Dai is an associate professor of operations management and business analysis at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business in the School of Nursing Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. This was first published by The Conversation – “How To Really Fix Your COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment Scheduling”.