City of Chicago turns to Zocdoc to help get COVID-19 vaccines into arms

The city of Chicago is teaming up with Zocdoc to help get COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of its 2.7 million residents.

The online medical appointment booking company will aggregate real-time appointment availability from select Chicago point-of-dispensing sites as well as from local care organizations such as Amita Health and Rush University Medical Center to serve as Chicago's central site for eligible residents to find and book vaccinations, officials from Zocdoc said.

Chicago is the first city to implement Zocdoc's vaccine scheduler tool, a new service care organizations or public health agencies can use, free of charge, to support streamlined vaccine scheduling. The service provides a free, public resource for residents who otherwise might have difficulty finding and accessing a vaccine, Chicago officials said.

"For some people, making vaccination more convenient will mean the difference between whether they get vaccinated or not, and we want to bring down every barrier that we can," said Christina Hildreth Anderson, Chicago's deputy commissioner and chief of operations for COVID-19 response for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

"We realized that the problems we had with testing would be the same problems we have with vaccinations. In conversations with my team, we said, 'We need a Zocdoc for vaccines.' And, it turns out, Zocdoc already had one," Anderson told Fierce Healthcare.

Zocdoc's service already has been launched at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City and has been used to book more than 100,000 vaccine appointments for its front-line healthcare employees and for eligible patients.

RELATED: Zocdoc, Notable Health roll out tools to help automate COVID-19 vaccine screenings and scheduling

For Chicago residents who are eligible, Zocdoc will show nearby vaccination locations, real-time appointment availability and the ability to book online. The service offers embedded translation support for more than 100 languages, including Spanish. It also has a variety of accessibility tools that users can enable if they need additional support or modifications.

City officials acknowledged vaccine availability is still limited nationwide, but appointments will be added on an ongoing basis as more vaccines are allocated to providers. Zocdoc's service will enable residents to be notified when new appointments become available.

Chicago also is working to set up a call center for those residents who are not tech-savvy, Anderson said. To ensure equitable access to vaccines, the city also is focused on outreach efforts in the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 to help sign up residents using Zocdoc's scheduling tool.

Zocdoc can integrate and aggregate data from more than 1,400 different practice management systems and also worked with the city to integrate with its vaccine clinical management system, officials said.

Zocdoc founder and CEO Oliver Kharraz, M.D., said the public-private collaboration provides a model for other cities to follow with the vaccine rollout.

RELATED: States 'need more supply' of COVID-19 vaccine amid push to grant more shots

"We just don't have time for trial and error. Simplifying healthcare logistics is at the core of what Zocdoc has been doing for 13 years, and our team stands ready, willing and able to help facilitate vaccinations for as many Americans as quickly as possible," he said.

How tech can help with "buggy" websites, equitable distribution

Cities have been turning to technology companies to help with one of the most difficult logistics challenges in history: equitably and efficiently distributing the COVID-19 vaccine.

As the nation continues its phased rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine starting with elderly Americans and healthcare workers, there is a high demand for "leftover" doses from people who missed their appointments. Communities have been calling for more streamlined standby lists to ensure prioritized individuals get the vaccine first.

A Zocdoc representative said a "standby" list is on the company's product road map, and a new feature will be launching in the next few weeks.

Across the country, there have been reports of buggy COVID-19 vaccination websites crashing as city and county sites can't handle the heavy load of registrations.

RELATED: Microsoft, Epic, Mayo Clinic join effort to accelerate digital COVID-19 vaccine records

"Most municipal websites are not ready for 10,000 people to hit all in the same second. That's one thing that we asked Zocdoc, 'Can your site handle the traffic?'" Anderson said.

Cybersecurity company Cloudflare realized this was one area where it could help. The company already developed a digital feature that deals with the problem of more demand than supply. The technology was initially developed to stop bots from hoarding tickets to a hot concert, the latest new sneaker or access to popular national park hikes, according to Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince in a blog post.

Cloudflare used that functionality to develop a virtual waiting room tool, called Project Fair Shot, that's available for free for any government, municipality, hospital, pharmacy or other organization responsible for distributing COVID-19 vaccines. It's a digital queue that sits in front of any vaccine registration website to let people know where they stand in line to sign up for a vaccine. 

The city of San Luis Obispo is one of hundreds of organizations using Project Fair Shot's waiting room to assist with vaccine distribution.

In a statement, Tyler Penney, web services administrator for the County of San Luis Obispo, said Cloudflare's technology helped get the vaccine "to those that need it most in an elegant, efficient and ethical manner."