5 steps to distribute the Covid vaccine more effectively by using technology

Learn from the disruptive vaccine rollout process

The distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. has been less than exemplary. While there has been an abundance of logistical issues, and it is easy to blame everything on the government, I am personally frustrated by the lackluster reactionary stance from the private sector on the last mile of the distribution chain. Try registering a parent on Walgreen's registration portal, and let me know how it goes.

I ran a few searches on Google for keywords such as "Walgreens vaccine COVID" but was not able to find it. I went digging through FAQ sections on the mothership's website, ran a few additional searches, one with "portal" in the name, and I finally found an unoptimized (from an SEO perspective) result with the title "Landing Page." That looked like what I needed, but the landing page did little to explain what I found. It's called an LTCF Portal. Does anyone know what LTCF means? I attempted to sign in with my parent's Walgreens account, but it didn't work. It turns out it was a portal to register "Long Term Care Facilities", so back to searching I went.

I finally found what I needed, and the website required me to set up pharmacy access, which I did. Then the form took me through a screening workflow. Instead of using rules based on my demographic data to determine eligibility, the form linked me to a 24-page long PDF. At this point, I was frustrated to the moon, and I run a technology company! What is a 70-year-old going to do?

Last but not least, the system allowed me to look for a day and time to get our parents vaccinated. The calendar selector, however, did not show any availability. I had to click on every single day on the calendar, only to see "no availability." The moment that availability got updated (typically at midnight) it became a race of clicking about frantically to find a spot. Some facilities reported a total of ~15 vaccinations a day until the additional staff is "certified" to carry out the vaccination.

You get the picture. We've had 11 months to prepare for it, and this is what we get from one of the largest and richest private sector businesses in the U.S.

Here are 5 recommended steps to reduce patient anxiety, increase throughput, and guarantee a smooth rollout of the vaccine using tech.

1. Establish a national queue

It's like we didn't learn anything from the Obamacare rollout fiasco, where state-wide insurance platforms crumbled under the volume of users like the Russian Olympic team under the scrutiny of doping allegations.

This rollout was an opportunity for both the government and private sector to step up and introduce a single, nationwide registration queue. Hell, why not use the largest identity management platform in the country? I hear a college kid built it a while ago, and you like to post your grandchildren's pictures on it.

First, you would have access to infrastructure that is already used at high volume and will not crack under pressure. Second, you lower the barrier of access because most people are already registered. Third, a single queue would provide the single source of truth in terms of access and eligibility (I'll come back to eligibility verification). You want to get fancy? We could use blockchain to track registrations, and there would literally be no way to alter the data.

2. Introduce multiple channels of access

For those that aren't on the social network, we could offer alternative channels of registration to the queue. We've been wrestling with automated phone systems for what seems like millennia when trying to dispute those pesky credit card charges. Even our elderly could figure out how to punch in their registration data over the phone.

Want to go old school? Provide paper applications and scan them in automatically (banks do it all the time!). Walk-up kiosks at all major pharmacies are another channel that could use existing infrastructure and lower the barrier of entry.

3. Use a rule engine to determine eligibility

My wife mocks me for not understanding what the stages of vaccine distribution mean - 1a, 1b, 1c... How are these helpful? We, as a society, have Open-Source tools that allow you to establish an easy-to-manage rules engine. The rules can be configured based on legislative domains (e.g., states), age groups, employment categories, and the list goes on.

Take the registration data, combine it with inventory availability, and allow the program to assign inventory to individuals based on the rules that the government determines are appropriate at any given time—stuck on a particular distribution stage? Promote people from the queue, so you don't hold up the damn train!

4. Improve the usability and accessibility of apps

There's really no excuse for the frustration and inefficiency of bad user experience on registration applications, like what you see on the Walgreens vaccine portal. We've written, presented, filmed, and posted about Product Design best practices that put the user at the center and design the software around the outcomes vs. the functionality. Want to have more people register? Design your software to help them do so!

5. Establish trust through transparency

The last thing you need when rolling out a vaccine during times of unrest is systems and processes that fail the trust of the country's citizens. Why not visualize and report registration status openly? Visualize the data based on geography, age group, vaccine inventory, vaccine distribution velocity, projected availability, and so on. Reward the private sector companies (e.g., a pharmacy network) that distribute the vaccine faster by providing them with more inventory at the federal level.

Executing on these programs would have taken 3-4 months and could have been in place by now if we started back in April of last year.

I hope we learn more effectively this time.

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