While the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the U.S. has improved since its rocky start in December, Americans continue to be on the hunt for an appointment slot.
Between the limited supply of vaccines, the challenges of signing up for an appointment and the short shelf life of the cold storage vaccines, many people wait in line for hours at clinics hoping for canceled appointments, no shows and extra doses that otherwise would be thrown out.
Zocdoc founder Cyrus Massoumi wants to make sure COVID-19 vaccine doses are getting into arms and not the trash.
The former CEO of the doctor appointment-booking company created an online platform that serves as a vaccine standby list. The site, Dr. B, matches vaccine providers who find themselves with extra vaccines to people who are willing to get one at a moment’s notice. The site enables people to receive text message notifications when extra vaccine doses become available nearby.
As of Monday, 1.8 million people have signed up on the site.
Massoumi came up with the idea for the site in January and recruited several engineers from Microsoft and Haven, the now-defunct healthcare collaboration started by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan.
The CEOs of Juno Medical, Cedar and Parsley Health are among its medical advisers. Tom Lee, founder and former CEO of One Medical, and Toyin Ajayi, M.D., co-founder and chief health officer of Cityblock Health, also are serving as medical advisers on the project.
"We saw an issue that some vaccines were not being used and wanted to do our part to help people get vaccinated as quickly as possible. Our talented and dedicated team came together because we all have the same goal to make sure no vaccine goes to waste," Massoumi told Fierce Healthcare via email.
The health tech entrepreneur said he was financing the site out of his own pocket.
The website is named after Massoumi's grandfather, who was nicknamed Dr. Bubba and became a doctor during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
More than 200 healthcare providers have signed up to participate in the project to help match people with extra vaccine doses. Massoumi declined to release numbers on how many people have been matched with a vaccine dose through the site but said, "shots are going in arms every day."
Providers who have signed up are based in 30 states and include doctors’ offices, pharmacies and the medical departments at large academic institutions, Massoumi told The New York Times.
The company says it is working to provide a more orderly system compared to the current patchwork of public and private websites that allows eligible people to find vaccine appointments. There have been complaints that COVID-19 vaccine sites run by cities and counties require people to spend hours refreshing websites to find an appointment slot and that the process is difficult for people who are less tech-savvy.
Even tech experts have noticed that the current system is problematic.
"Booking a vaccine appointment is like 'The Hunger Games,'" said health IT expert John Halamka, M.D., in a recent interview.
Halamka, who runs the Mayo Clinic's digital health and artificial intelligence projects, said his elderly mother faced challenges signing up for a vaccine appointment online.
Dr. B's site to match people with "leftover" vaccine shots is a more equitable process, Massoumi said.
"Dr. B queues people based on local government guidelines. After that, people are contacted based on the order they signed up. The queuing system is fairer than people being in the right place at the right time or knowing doctors who have extra vaccines," he said.
When the site first launched, Massoumi said he was intent on spreading awareness among communities of color first, Bloomberg reported. The Dr. B team has forged connections with the NAACP, the Community Action Network, the Indian Health Service and iHeartRadio’s Spanish-speaking channels, among others, according to Bloomberg.
When people sign up on Dr. B, they enter basic biographical information, such as their date of birth, address, underlying health conditions and the type of work they do. If vaccine providers near them have extra doses, they will get notified via text message and will need to respond to the text message quickly in order to claim the offered dose.
Providers plug in the number of leftover vaccines they have and the time frame in which they can be administered. Dr. B’s algorithm sifts through a list of people who have signed up for the free service and prioritizes them based on state and local criteria, according to Bloomberg.
If the person declines or does not respond to the text message, the site will reassign that dose to another person.
According to the website, Dr. B sends a patient's information to a matching provider in order to verify their eligibility in person. The site does not sell, share or transfer health data to any third parties, the company said on the website.