The city of Chicago announced Tuesday that it would partner with Zocdoc to use the vendor's scheduling technology to assist with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
Starting this week, Chicagoans can visit zocdoc.com/vaccine. Eligible users will be able to find and select a date, time and location to book their appointment online at a nearby provider. Those not yet eligible can enter their email address to be notified when more supply becomes available.
City representatives say the aim is to give Chicagoans a simplified way to find a vaccination site amidst enduring confusion.
"The awareness of the problem really came last year," said Chicago Department of Public Health Deputy Commissioner Christina Hildreth Anderson, who is also chief of operations for the city's COVID-19 response. "We put an enormous amount of effort into COVID-19 testing access, and one of the things we never got to was a central place to [find out where] to get tested."
"There's been a lot of conversation about how to avoid replicating the problem with the vaccine," Anderson continued.
WHY IT MATTERS
Issues around equity have dogged the vaccine's rollout, both in Chicago and throughout the United States as a whole. People of color, especially Black and Latinx individuals, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, as outlets such as South Side Weekly have noted, vaccination rates are lower in the city's predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Rather than first-come, first-served websites, medical groups have stressed the need for a lottery system and proactive phone outreach.
In response to questions around whether relying on an online scheduler could deepen that divide, Anderson said the city is "syncing Zocdoc into our community-outreach strategies: canvassing neighborhoods, communities, planning to have vaccine education events where we walk people through signing up right on the spot. Eventually we're going to have a call center stood up."
Anderson added that "a lot of federally qualified health centers are really excited about the integration." Local care organizations AMITA Health, Erie Family Health, Innovative Express Care and Rush University Medical Center have signed on as partners to notify patients when they have vaccine availability, and Anderson anticipates that more will do so in the coming weeks.
"The great thing about the Zocdoc solution is it's very lightweight to connect to from an IT perspective," Anderson said, noting that it only requires a name, birth date and email address to sign up. It also offers embedded translation support for more than 100 languages, according to the company, as well as a variety of accessibility tools.
When it comes to key performance indicators as to the success of the project, Anderson said that the team plans to examine which ZIP codes the people are using this channel are in, as well as demographic data.
"We want to see providers signing up with availability in hard-hit neighborhoods," she said. The city team will be asking itself: "Are our outreach efforts resonating?"
City leaders stressed that Chicagoans should first check with their primary care providers, but said the scheduler could serve as a public resource for those who don't have one.
Zocdoc representatives said the vendor would be offering the tool free of charge to the city.
"Zocdoc has historically not worked with government entities. That's not typically where we've laid emphasis," said Dr. Oliver Kharraz, Zocdoc founder and CEO. "The city of Chicago approached us. We were happy to be responsive and work with them."
"The challenge is one of expectations," Kharraz continued. "The best scheduling technology can't overcome a lack of vaccines. It's important to point out that more capacity will happen over time."
THE LARGER TREND
In lieu of a unified federal rollout, many individual health systems have turned to schedulers to try and streamline the COVID-19 vaccine signup process, with New York City-based Mount Sinai the first in the country to go live with Zocdoc's Vaccine Scheduler.
Some vendors, such as EnlivenHealth, told Healthcare IT News a proactive approach is needed, suggesting that pharmacies could use demographic data to target patients eligible for the vaccine.
Still, risk is involved from a cybersecurity perspective (as with all IT tools). Just this week, a Michigan-based health system discovered a vulnerability in Epic's scheduler that allowed people to "skip the line."
ON THE RECORD
"One of the things that's been so hard in [COVID-19] is that in a lot of cases the local jurisdictions have been left to fend for themselves," said Anderson. "Part of what we want to say to folks is: 'It's coming. You will get your turn, and one of the ways you'll find out that appointments are available can be through Zocdoc.'"