Health systems have had no shortage of challenges over the last year—and now, they face the added challenge of an increasingly complex vaccine rollout, one that requires ongoing coordination with a wide variety of external stakeholders, from public health agencies, to pharmaceutical companies, to tech companies, and more.
But without a clear roadmap for how these stakeholders should work together, the vaccine rollout may continue to falter—especially now, as vaccine supply ramps up and states broaden vaccine eligibility. To help provider organizations scale up and avoid the missteps that plagued the start of the rollout, we've outlined below the three biggest mistakes that providers can't afford to make—and strategies to avoid them.
Mistake 1: A fragmented communication strategy
Anyone who has tried to get a Covid-19 vaccine (or knows someone who has) understands that the process has been chaotic at best. Every patient seems to have a story of spending hours online or on the phone, talking to what feels like every industry stakeholder to get answers on when and where they should get their vaccine—and if providers aren't careful, this frustration will result in patients breaking what little loyalties they had to their health system or physicians.
On the flip side, this crisis presents an opportunity for health systems to be the source of truth for the community, engage patients in new ways, and reach out to new consumers. Health care leaders must lean in and own the communication, because if providers can't help prospective patients get the information they need, patients will ultimately turn to the entities that can.
The good news is that there are simple steps leaders can take now to be a guiding force in the market. Think about the digital front door first by updating website banners, FAQ pages, and marketing materials to clarify vaccine prioritization, estimate timelines, and share logistics. Refresh these pages as often as needed to ensure patients and family members know they're reading the latest available information.
In addition, make sure you're clearly communicating your organizations' approach to administering unused and potentially expiring doses, as "waitlist" and "unused dose" policies are increasingly becoming a source of confusion and perceived inequity nationwide. This level of transparency will be particularly important as more states broaden the number of people eligible for vaccination appointments. Acting as the source of truth will require coordination with other health care and community partners to streamline messaging across the region and target media campaigns that combat confusion, distrust, and misinformation.
Mistake 2: Tapping an already overburdened workforce for Covid-19 vaccination
Shortages of PPE and medical equipment have been an ongoing problem throughout the pandemic. And with the rapidly expanding vaccine rollout, new shortages are likely in the coming months—this time, the supply of vaccinators. Leaders must think proactively to ensure that the supply of vaccinators doesn't become yet another bottleneck—even as they continue to protect an already overburdened workforce.
Health systems can't rely on the nurses on the frontlines of Covid-19 treatment to also be on the frontline of Covid-19 vaccination. Instead, they should expand capacity by looking beyond typical staffing pools.
But not just anyone can be a vaccinator. Vaccinator eligibility and training requirements vary state by state. Leaders should learn their state's guidelines to get as creative as possible with who gets tapped as vaccinators. Depending on state regulations, health systems should find, train, and deploy students, community pharmacists, other clinicians, retirees, and volunteers to deliver vaccines. The goal here is to effectively train and deploy vaccinators without creating major workforce gaps elsewhere in the system or further fueling burnout.
Mistake 3: Not planning for how vaccination will affect inequities
While recent research shows that Americans as a whole are increasingly positive about getting a Covid-19 vaccine, that enthusiasm is not consistent across racial and ethnic groups. In some communities, a lack of confidence in the Covid-19 vaccine stems largely from a legacy of medical abuse and discrimination—a legitimate distrust that poses a unique hurdle to equitable vaccine distribution, as the communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic are still the most hesitant to get vaccinated.
To address this distrust, provider organizations must understand the cultural nuances of their patient population so as to identify which members of their communities are less trusting of medical institutions and more likely to avoid vaccination. With this patient population in mind, develop a targeted communication strategy that addresses the root causes for vaccination mistrust and skepticism. Ensure that this communication strategy is accessible by translating all vaccination information into the languages spoken by members of your patient population.
That said, while provider organizations can play a distinct role here, you can't mitigate vaccine disparities on your own. Taking a community-centered approach to equitable vaccination will require working with grassroots organizations and faith-based leaders to reach those most disconnected from the health care system. Leaders should coordinate with community-based organizations and tap into a variety of spokespeople, including community health workers, religious leaders, pharmacists, and educators to spread information about the vaccine, build trust, and address access barriers.