A prominent pharmacy chain recently contacted me regarding an upcoming COVID-19 vaccine appointment. The only problem was that I did not personally book said appointment… My antennae were raised upon being instructed to click a link and provide all of my personally-identifiable-information (PII). (No, thanks!)
Upon further inspection, this was all legitimate correspondence from the pharmacy, however poorly expressed. After a phone conversation, Pharmacy informed me that they were automatically booking vaccine appointments for folks who were not showing as having been vaccinated per the Pharmacy’s vaccine records, alone.
I get it. The delta variant poses damage we cannot even begin to fathom yet, and vaccines coupled with masking (for those who do not have genuine medical contraindications to these measures) are our best communal ways to fight back. Pharmacies have a vested (heavy emphasis on the dollar signs) interest in public health.
Yet, I could not stop thinking about this interaction from a patient advocacy perspective. For starters, this poses fraud and safety issues for those already vaccinated outside of the Pharmacy system. Health literacy is different for each of us. What if someone already vaccinated who, through no fault of their own, does not fully understand the vaccine process then becomes quadruply-vaccinated via these pre-booked Pharmacy appointments? What if a vaccine card is obtained at the Pharmacy, but the previously-vaxxed individual already had a card from the original vaccine site? Etc. This well-intentioned public health project needs better organization and communication to run smoothly. Involving patient advocates in the process would have been a good place to begin…
For what it’s worth, these simple steps could drastically improve Pharmacy’s outreach:
1) Make the appointment messages MUCH clearer. The current text is a sketchy-looking link that most people are not going to trust. The appointment is automatically booked by the Pharmacy on short notice without asking the individual about availability. (This is not a good look! As advocates, we know barriers to healthcare such as time off from work or child care will affect when people can receive vaccines. I would even argue the Pharmacy made their own work more difficult by automatically booking because so many will not be able to attend at the magical, preset date and time, and the Pharmacy consequently has to deal with numerous phone call questions!)
Communicate WHY this appointment is happening within the reminder message, i.e., “Our Pharmacy records, alone, indicate that you have not received the COVID-19 vaccine(s) within our Pharmacy system. To aid public health efforts, we have booked this appointment for you.”
2) Meet people where they’re at.
Make this an opt-in process at the point of purchase, such as the pharmacy counter. Educated pharmacists and pharmacy techs can explain why the vaccines are necessary. People will be more likely to say “yes” during in-person conversations, much like car sales events.
Pharmacy is being presumptuous by insinuating that people have not received the vaccines if not shown in the Pharmacy records. Instead of scapegoating, corporations should invest more in creating real world access opportunities. Perhaps there is a local town with a low vaccination rate? Host community events outdoors where members can easily witness firsthand that vaccines are safe and effective, and that others in the community are signing up for their shots then and there.
3) “But Ally, shouldn’t we have a nationwide, interconnected electronic health record (EHR) so that we can avoid some of these issues?”
I could write another long blog on this, but my personal short answer is, “Not interested!” I prefer to control my own data at each respective healthcare interaction. We know there are conscious and unconscious biases in healthcare, particularly for women and/or people of color, and often it is nice to start fresh with a new pair of healthcare provider eyes and a new EHR at certain appointments. I am happy that Pharmacy does not know more about my health than it already does, in this case. And it can be a slippery slope of giving up our access once that ball is rolling- COVID-19 or not.
Also, the idea of an interconnected nationwide EHR in the United States has floated around for decades now. As a simplified response to this, my bet is that it will never happen to the idyllic degree that some want it to; we are too selfish from a corporate, capitalistic sense to allow one big bad wolf to control all EHR content when we can have multiple packs tearing into the meal all at once.
4) To summarize, this seemingly small marketing campaign could have tenfold positive effects if Pharmacy had consulted directly with patient advocates (and paid them accordingly for their time and knowledge). We know what to look for and how to make healthcare better because we have lived it day in and day out for decades. We want improved quality of design (and quality of life) for all involved. And while we concede that we are living in bizarre times considering the pandemic, this is not an excuse to cut corners and rush. A few edits to the messaging could make a world of difference and help change the course of COVID-19.