Health systems across the nation are using information technology to help the COVID vaccine rollout. December 14, 2020 marked the start of COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States. The rollout began with priority groups like healthcare workers and nursing home residents. Then it picked up over the next six months as vaccines became available to the general population. As of June 2021, U.S. administration has reached over 300 million doses. In other words, 52.7% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose, and 43.9% is fully vaccinated.

The joint efforts of the federal, state and local governments—as well as the CDC, manufacturers and administration sites—contributed to this large-scale initiative. And information technology (IT) and health systems have come together to play a major role in vaccinating the country.

How Health Systems Use Information Technology to Help the COVID Vaccine Rollout
Mayo Clinic COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker as of June 14, 2021

According to Renee Patton, global director of healthcare and education industries at Cisco, there are three main issues regarding vaccine administration. IT platforms are and will continue to play a significant role in addressing these challenges:

  1. Patient access and outreach
  2. Secure connectivity
  3. Vaccine monitoring and storage

1. Patient access and outreach limitations are slowing the speed of vaccine rollouts

Reaching patients is a critical step in the process. Especially as demand varies depending on demographics, health status and location.

  • IBM uses its Watson Health Analytics software to forecast ZIP-code level demand. This allows hospitals and state governments to appropriately distribute doses.
  • In early 2021, healthcare organizations faced a heavy influx of patient inquiries as information regarding vaccine eligibility and phases became available. AT&T worked with Prisma Health in South Carolina to introduce an interactive voice response. This helped Prisma manage the hundreds of calls received daily.
  • Microsoft and Notable Health both produced AI tools allowing users to check for vaccine eligibility and information. Communication methods employing automatic processes and AI therefore lift the burden off employees who would otherwise answer the flood of calls every day.

Despite new AI tools, many Americans questioned the speed of vaccination efforts in the first few months of 2021 Big Tech companies organize the initiative instead of the government, since companies such as Google and Facebook have access to user data and could potentially identify eligible vaccine candidates? Yet the federal government delegated authority to state and local governments, leaving less control over the full distribution process to these companies. Other reasons for minimal Big Tech involvement include high financial costs, challenging logistics and alternatives to getting directly involved (e.g., Google promotes vaccine awareness through advertisements). Big Tech therefore currently plays a role in facilitating communication and patient outreach. But it’s less impactful to the vaccine distribution and administration process than some expected.

2. Secure and stable internet connections are critical in documenting patient information and vaccination status

How Health Systems Use Information Technology to Help the COVID Vaccine Rollout

Secure connectivity is another issue regarding the rollout, with parking lots and sport stadiums transforming into vaccination sites due to their sheer size and accessibility. With the rise of electronic health records, these locations require secure and stable connection for employees to document patient information and vaccination status. Patton claims many organizations experienced this process before when setting up field hospitals and pop-up testing sites, suggesting that it is not a new challenge. Wi-Fi, 5G and cloud-based tools are commonly used at these sites. And cellular routers are set up in areas that lack reliable internet.

3. Vaccine monitoring and storage are the ultimate logistical and financial hurdles

Every shipment needs to be tracked from production facilities to the arms of Americans.

  • The CDC uses Vaccine Tracking System (VTrckS), an IT system for public health jurisdictions and national provider organizations, to check on vaccine logistics and administration.
  • Both AT&T and Honeywell are employing Internet of Things (IoT), a large network of connected physical objects, to contribute to efficient delivery and near-real-time tracking of doses.
  • Monitoring doses to ensure storage at low temperatures is also necessary. The CDC recommends placing data digital loggers inside freezers and transport containers. But the devices require removal to download data.
  • Companies such as Cold Chain Technologies, PharmaWatch and Carrier take this one step further by producing internet-connected cold chain sensors. These solutions continuously transmit data from the insides of storage containers without requiring removal. However, there are still certain drawbacks, including relatively high prices (up to $20,000 each) as well as transport, equipment and human errors.

Efforts to use information technology to help the COVID vaccine rollout have their constraints

Although the interplay between IT and healthcare is not new—considering the rise of technology and digital platforms in healthcare—these newly developed programs and devices hint at possible future directions for technology in the healthcare industry. At the same time, these new tools are not beneficial to all. Many elderly Americans who may not be tech savvy or have stable internet connections struggle to schedule vaccine appointments online or use telemedicine. Stanford Medical Center’s algorithm mistakenly prioritized employees working remotely over frontline workers for the vaccine, leading to concerns regarding reliance on AI for distribution. Use of technology in healthcare can help streamline processes. But it also requires caution and audience consideration.

Corporate Insight closely monitors the digital patient and member experience across leading health systems and health plans. Within our Health System Monitor, we see leading hospitals and health systems using information technology to communicate with patients and roll out the vaccine. For further insights and continuing changes to the nation’s leading healthcare organizations, please read more on our blog.