There’s a better, faster way to distribute vaccines

Digital workflows can help solve one of the biggest logistical challenges ever

vaccine management

The arrival of multiple COVID-19 vaccines has created hope that the end of this pandemic may be in sight. But producing a vaccine is the first step in an immensely complex process that we must get right.

Last fall, the U.S. government set a goal of inoculating 20 million Americans by the end of 2020. As of January 24, 2021, 18.5 million people had been vaccinated.

In conversations with governments, providers, and analysts in recent weeks, we focused on the issues that have slowed down vaccine distribution and administration. One of the biggest challenges is an over-reliance on slow, manual, error-prone processes that can overwhelm medical workers and systems.

We’ve seen multiple examples of medical facilities using email as a primary method to schedule vaccination appointments. Often, the emails go unread by busy clinicians who are the first priority group. As a result, the scheduled appointments are missed, leading other employees to perceive that appointments are available when they are not.

Hospitals are under siege from the pandemic, and mistakes are bound to happen. But there’s a better way to manage one of the most consequential vaccination efforts in human history.

We have a powerful, novel weapon in the fight against COVID-19: digital workflows that automate critical processes, increase accountability, and dramatically improve efficiency.

Even a perfectly optimized vaccination program won’t end the pandemic by itself. We’ll still need to wear masks and maintain social distancing protocols for months to come, according to a new model developed by Columbia University researchers and reported in the New York Times.

[Read also: Converting vaccines into vaccinations]

But digital workflows have transformed slow, manual functions for dozens of industries. In the battle to vaccinate the world’s 7.8 billion people, they can provide the speed, transparency, and coordination that essential organizations need to address this global crisis.

An unpleasant dose of reality

COVID-19 vaccine management is the biggest workflow management challenge of our lifetime. To win, we must move faster than the virus. That will require governments to work in concert with healthcare providers, pharmacies, and other entities involved in administering vaccines.

Health systems and government agencies know how to vaccinate people. What they don’t know is how to do it 15.6 billion times globally (most vaccine recipients will require two doses) at top speed, and with a level of precision in communication, coordination, and collaboration that may have no historical equivalent.

The supply-chain issues are daunting. We need to deliver enough vaccines for every person. Every dose must be maintained at specific temperatures from manufacture to inoculation. Health systems must track who has received a first shot, then schedule second shots on specific dates. They also need to follow up with each patient and track any adverse side effects.

We’re now in the earliest stages of vaccine rollout, and in many regions the system is already breaking down. The good news is that digital workflows can help optimize vaccine delivery by automating critical elements of this process, including inventory management, staffing, scheduling, support, patient communications, reporting, and more.

Three keys to efficient vaccine delivery

At ServiceNow, we’re working with all stakeholders, from large government agencies to small private healthcare and pharmacy groups, to help them manage their vaccine response. Our new Vaccine Administration Management solution supports President Joe Biden’s goal to deliver 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, with immediate actions underway by the Biden-Harris administration to “convert vaccines into vaccinations.”

The State of North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and NHS Scotland are among the more than 100 organizations currently working with ServiceNow on their vaccine management efforts. Based on our experience with all these organizations, we’ve identified three critical areas of focus:

1. Establish a vaccine management command center

Given the number of private- and public-sector entities involved in the vaccine delivery process, it’s essential to define each organization’s roles and responsibilities.

So far, the U.S. approach has been that the federal government provides COVID-19 vaccines, and states figure out how to administer them. State agencies determine what systems of communication, reporting, and other functions they must provide. Where gaps exist, states call on their emergency response teams or departments of health or public safety to bridge them. If those organizations can’t fill the gaps, they will typically ask healthcare systems to do so.

State and local governments need to cooperate with symphonic precision. The good news is that they have a model to follow: a vaccine ops “playbook” developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last fall that lays out major operational requirements to get vaccines to patients as quickly as possible.

At a national and global level, digital workflow management can provide an invaluable dashboard view of all the moving parts in this process.

2. Pay special attention to information hand-offs

Healthcare organizations know how to manage vaccine supplies and schedule vaccination appointments. Coordinating vaccination efforts seamlessly with county and local officials, however, is less familiar territory.

The biggest problems in vaccine delivery typically arise when one organization hands off responsibility to another. Here again, workflow management tools can help because they make it easier for providers to synchronize efforts with other partners in the supply chain.

3. Create an information supply chain

We’ve all seen the recent headlines. Many hospitals, overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, don’t have enough staff to administer the shots. Local government officials typically get little advance notice of arriving vaccine shipments, forcing them to scramble to schedule vaccinations. Many communities also lack ready access to information about vaccine efficacy.

We need an information supply chain that travels ahead of the vaccine, so that everyone is prepared when it arrives. Providers need to know how many vaccine doses they’re going to receive, and when and where they will arrive. Vaccine recipients need to know when they can expect to receive a shot and where they should go to get it.

Ultimately, the vaccine will work only if enough people take it. A survey in December by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 1 in 4 Americans are “vaccine hesitant,” because of safety concerns and a lack of trust in government.

Access to good information is essential to building trust. Before anyone gets a jab in their arm, government agencies, healthcare providers, and citizens need to be better informed. That’s another way that digital workflows can help end the pandemic.