USDR’s appointment finder tools and services for faster, easier access to COVID-19 vaccines

U.S. Digital Response
U.S. Digital Response
6 min readApr 2, 2021

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By: Calvin French-Owen, Rob Brackett, Diana Wang, Mike Flowers, Barbara Nasto, Elizabeth Desrosiers

As of April 1, 55 million people in the U.S. have received their full COVID-19 vaccinations. By mid-April, 90% of remaining adults will be eligible to receive the vaccine. However, state governments are still hearing the same question over and over from their constituents: Why is it so hard to find and secure a COVID vaccination appointment?

Everyday people across the country are frustrated with their appointment search experience: signing up for separate waitlists at multiple clinics, constantly refreshing dozens of different websites, and repeatedly calling busy phone lines. The decentralization of vaccine scheduling systems perpetuates this challenge and frustration. On top of this, most local communities still have a shortage of vaccine supply that won’t fully accommodate the imminent surge in demand.

U.S. Digital Response (USDR) is helping state, federal and local agencies make appointments more accessible to all who are eligible to receive their COVID-19 vaccines.

By collaborating with organizations at the federal, state, and community levels, we’ve seen many variations of vaccine appointment finders in use. In this post, we specifically highlight our appointment finder collaboration with the State of New Jersey. USDR is broadly sharing our cumulative resources and pro-bono services to support your ultimate goal: getting shots into your residents’ arms, quickly and equitably. Vaccine appointment finders are an essential tool needed to drive this dual outcome throughout your diverse communities, ranging from vaccine-eager to vaccine-hesitant.

Below, we elaborate on four takeaways from our appointment finder experiences with federal, state, and community organizations:

  1. Inventory availability ≠ Appointment availability
  2. Mix and match different appointment building blocks
  3. Use your appointment finder as an internal tool first, then iterate
  4. Speed should not sacrifice equity

Inventory availability ≠ Appointment availability

All vaccine providers (like CVS pharmacy sites) routinely report their vaccine inventory data to public health authorities. Understandably, public health authorities often share this readily-available inventory data publicly–but inventory availability does not directly reflect appointment availability. Unfortunately, inventory-based vaccine finders are currently a root cause of widespread frustration for eligible residents across the nation.

Publicizing inventory availability often misroutes people to vaccine providers with plenty of inventory (often in reserve for second dose administrations) but no available appointments. Meanwhile, these systems unintentionally steer people away from other providers that do have upcoming appointment availability, but may not have inventory today.

To alleviate this challenge, we recommend taking a user-centered approach to develop a practical and useful appointment finder tool for eligible residents.

Ideal vaccine appointment finder user experience

USDR recently collaborated with the State of New Jersey’s Office of Innovation as they built a vaccine appointment finder leveraging this model. This appointment finder aggregates appointment availability information from the state’s major vaccine providers so residents can easily find an appointment in their local area. New Jersey’s call center personnel have been using the vaccine appointment finder tool daily to book appointments for their inbound residents. An even more user-friendly, accessible version of this appointment finder is now available to the general public, allowing residents to secure appointments on their own.

Mix and match different appointment building blocks

Now let’s walk through the high-level building blocks for creating your jurisdiction’s own vaccine appointment finder. You can think of appointment finder configurations as “building blocks” to mix and match. The building blocks are: 1) provider sources and 2) data extraction methods.

Vaccine appointment finder: the major technology building blocks

Provider Sources

Which major provider sources offer vaccine appointments, and through what systems?

To extract appointment information from these above provider sources, there are several different methods that work best for providers’ particular appointment systems (e.g. CVS vs. Epic). Below, we highlight the different data extraction methods, and their pros and cons, for surfacing appointments to your residents. Ultimately, API calls are the most ideal and reliable data extraction method, but not all providers’ appointment systems offer APIs.

Data Extraction Methods

How is your appointment finder now going to aggregate and surface the above provider sources’ appointments?

Ultimately, your Department of Health’s goals, constraints, and timeline determine the mix of provider sources and data extraction methods that will be best suited for your vaccine appointment finder.

This post only scratches the surface of technology best practices. If you need help holistically assessing which of these building blocks will provide the best vaccine appointment finding experience for your residents, USDR can provide direct advice.

For more detailed insights and recommendations, please visit USDR’s Vaccine Appointment Finders: Tactical Implementation Guide. This guide’s purpose is to highlight technology, but also cultural, political, and legal considerations to set your vaccine appointment finder up for success.

Use your appointment finder as an internal tool first, then iterate

Making a big public launch for your vaccine appointment finder is loaded with tons of usability and scalability expectations, legal permissions, and stakeholder sign-offs. For such an urgent need, it’s best to release your vaccine appointment finder as a lower stake, simpler internal tool, especially for your call center. For example, New Jersey decided to pilot its appointment finder with the state’s call center first; after the tool was built, New Jersey’s personnel leveraged it within two days to immediately schedule appointments for residents. This small set of call center internal users also gave valuable feedback to improve the vaccine appointment finder for an eventual public launch.

We highly recommend this “build-as-you-go” approach: millions of eligible residents need help securing appointments today. The reality is that a successful VAF will never cover every single provider. Every individual provider you provide definitive appointment availability for saves your residents real time and frustration. Even if you don’t have high appointment coverage at the start, you’re already delivering substantive value. Your team can always iterate and add more provider types and data extraction methods on an ongoing basis.

Speed should not sacrifice equity

Enabling equity outcomes, or reaching underserved communities within your jurisdiction, is essential for any vaccine appointment finder. Many jurisdictions are dedicated to equitable vaccine distribution, and have a plethora of research-based and targeted methods to serve vulnerable populations.

We’re highlighting a pragmatic and repeatable example from New Jersey on how the state is prioritizing vaccination speed and equity together. New Jersey’s appointment finder infrastructure maintains and refreshes a separate list of available appointments for clinics that serve specific populations.

These appointments are reserved and dedicated for targeted demographics at equity-focused sites, and intentionally are not surfaced in their general public-facing appointment finder. However, all other participating providers’ available appointments are still surfaced to the public.

As you know, the landscape around vaccinations as a whole–including vaccine appointment finders–evolves so quickly, at the national, state, and local levels. We’ll continue to publish more appointment finder tools and resources to help you get shots in arms, quickly and equitably.

USDR’s team of experts is working on solutions for vaccine appointment finders and is eager to connect to provide pro bono advice or implementation services to meet your communities’ needs. We are nonpartisan, fast and free. Fill out this intake form, and we’ll get in touch within hours.

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U.S. Digital Response
U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.