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Vaccine scheduling sites are terrible. Can a new plan help Chicago fix them?

The city is partnering with Zocdoc for the first citywide rollout of a vaccine scheduling site.

Vaccine scheduling sites are terrible. Can a new plan help Chicago fix them?

Chicago's new partnership with Zocdoc could address some of the issues with vaccine scheduling in America.

Photo: National Cancer Institute

Christina Hildreth Anderson knows it's too hard to schedule an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccine — and not just because the vaccine supply is limited.

It's also because the websites that states and local governments hastily stood up over the last few months to help people find and schedule their vaccinations almost universally suck. They crash and time out under a flood of traffic, or show open appointments that disappear once you've entered all of your personal details. In Chicago, where Anderson heads up operations for the city's COVID-19 response, finding a vaccine requires hopping around a map of the city and clicking through a bunch of different pharmacy websites, only to find they're all booked up.

It shouldn't be that way, but it is that way, Anderson says, because public health departments in cities across America are chronically underfunded. So while she and her team of a few hundred city employees spent the last year working 18-hour days to get testing up and running and preparing to actually receive the vaccine and store it in ultra-cold freezers, the more mundane task of building a website that works fell down the list of priorities.

"It's like when you're under water, it's hard to get over water and plan ahead," Anderson said. "The software planning came when it came."

Now, however, Chicago is trying a new approach, becoming the first city in the country to launch a partnership with the health care scheduling company Zocdoc. Starting Tuesday, Chicagoans can go to Zocdoc, enter their location, pull up a list of available appointment times at a range of different facilities and book one directly through the app. At launch, Zocdoc will list appointments at eight facilities, including two of Chicago's biggest health care providers, AMITA Health and Rush University Medical Center. It's a service Zocdoc is offering to the city of Chicago, and any city in the country that wants it, for free.

To Anderson, the appeal was getting to take the technical lift off of hospitals' and city officials' hands. "The last thing a hospital in a pandemic wants to hear is: 'Here's a giant IT project,'" she said.

The lack of resources isn't the only reason that it's been so challenging for cities and states to build vaccine scheduling sites that work well, said Oliver Kharraz, CEO of Zocdoc. Building any online portal that can connect to the various electronic health record and scheduling systems that hospitals, pharmacies and clinics use is a massive undertaking. Building a user-friendly one is even harder.

"Those are things that aren't top of mind for a lot of these executives. Hospital execs don't look at abandoned shopping cart stats like an online retailer," Kharraz said.

These shoddily-created websites are more than just a nuisance. The time it takes to navigate them and to try, try again can also make it harder for working people and older people to land a slot, despite their risk factors. That can contribute to a growing divide in cities across the country, including Chicago, where wealthier, white people are dominating vaccine scheduling systems over low-income people and people of color.

But this problem that has been so insurmountable for health systems and local governments is effectively Zocdoc's entire business model. It's spent the last 13 years streamlining the process of getting people doctor's appointments. Last month, the company launched its vaccine scheduler with New York's Mount Sinai Health System and was almost immediately booking 100 vaccine appointments per minute. The Chicago partnership is the first with local government backing.

Anderson said she reached out to Zocdoc in mid-January, after a member of her COVID-19 response planning team suggested they look into Zocdoc for vaccines. "We took it to Zocdoc, and they said, 'We're already doing this. We'd love to do it with you,'" Anderson said.

Within two weeks, it was ready for launch. Kharraz said Zocdoc is currently in talks with other cities and should be able to announce them soon. It's also not the only tech company diving into this work. Google is working on integrating vaccine locations into Google search and maps starting in Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. And in San Diego and Los Angeles, a techie SWAT team has worked with the California state government to stand up a scheduling tool called MyTurn.

Still, there's only so much user-friendly design can accomplish when there's not enough vaccine to go around. Even in Chicago, people are bound to log onto the city's new Zocdoc scheduler to find that all the appointments are booked. "Candidly, those appointments are going to go lightning-fast," Anderson said.

Until more vaccines become available, Anderson is hoping this new tool can at least prevent an already frustrating and scary experience from also becoming a waste of time.

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