COVID-19 Vaccine Tracking Spotlights Patient Matching Challenges

Featured in Healthcare IT Today

More than 200 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the United States, and another 3 million doses are given daily, recent data shows. But while consumers have paper or digital documentation to track their immunizations, communicating this information to providers is another story.

States are attempting to address the issue, although approaches vary and have met multiple obstacles. For example, few states signed on to implement the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC’s) $44 million COVID-19 vaccination tracking system. One state that did ultimately opted out because the system was slow and crashed often. In states that set up their own registration websites, some systems lack the bandwidth to handle an influx of queries for vaccination slots. Others don’t communicate easily with other systems.

These are problems that a “digital passport” alone cannot solve. Without the ability to quickly determine which patients received a dose of the vaccine and which vaccine they received, physicians could be ill-prepared to deal with scenarios where patients react badly to a first or second dose. They also are blind to whether patients received a second dose and in what timeframe—and that’s a problem, given that millions are skipping their second dose out of fear of the side effects.

Even in instances where health systems and physician offices are able to tap into state registries to access this information, matching patients based on demographic data is a process that is prone to error. We’ve already seen errors in demographic data capture occur when COVID-19 testing sites are inundated with requests for tests. This begs additional questions, such as: What happens when individuals are racing to enter their personal information at odd hours of the night to schedule a vaccination appointment? How many of these records are likely to contain errors such as a mistyped name, address or date of birth? How difficult will it be for providers to make the correct match—if they are able to find their patient at all?

Mass Vaccinations Raise Data Capture Risks

Just as gaps in COVID-19 testing data leave us exposed during the coronavirus crisis, so do challenges in capturing and accessing vaccination data.

With millions of people seeking vaccinations, the ability to verify the type of vaccine an individual has received and when the next vaccination is due, if needed, is essential in scheduling a second appointment. Similarly, access to accurate contact information is vital not only for vaccine follow-up, but also in managing appointment schedules to ensure those eligible for a second dose take priority.

Then there’s the challenge of asking patients to keep track of their physical vaccination card. “When you arrive for your second-shot appointment, you must present the hard copy of your physical vaccination card or a picture of it,” one vaccination site advises, suggesting consumers take a photo of their card for safekeeping. When protection against the coronavirus is on the line, putting responsibility for recordkeeping in consumers’ hands isn’t sufficient. Nor is it safe, given that the types of vaccines available are not interchangeable.

To effectively track COVID-19 vaccinations, healthcare’s key stakeholders need solutions that are quick, data-driven and easy to deploy. These solutions also must be highly accurate, even under periods of heavy traffic.

But as we’ve seen in hospitals and health systems, match rates for patient medical records vary widely. A Pew Trust analysis estimates up to half of patient records exchanged between hospitals and other care facilities are not correctly linked. Within health systems, emergency departments (EDs) are especially vulnerable to high rates of unmatched records due to the urgency of care needs and the challenge of obtaining accurate demographic data. What does that mean for match rates at mass vaccination sites like Major League Baseball parks? How equipped are these sites to ensure the right records are matched with the right individuals?

Strengthening Patient Data Capture for Vaccinations

The experiences of healthcare organizations across the country point to three critical ways state registries can bolster consumer data capture.

Double down on data completeness. Educate staff and consumers about the need to complete all data fields, even during high-volume, high-intensity periods. Instruct staff to verify spellings of names, address information, phone numbers and date of birth at the point of check in, and give them the power to make changes when errors are spotted. Reiterate the need to avoid skipping data verification checks out of a desire to expedite check-in.

Look for ways to enrich data to strengthen health insights. Understanding how factors such as race, ethnicity or social determinants of health, like access to stable housing and reliable transportation, correlate with vaccine access can support equitable distribution. By investing in software that enriches patient demographic information with lifestyle data, public health agencies supercharge their ability to understand and remove barriers to vaccination access.

Pair patient databases with software for verifying patient identity. One solution—referential matching software—compares individuals’ demographics against a continually updated reference database of identities. This helps match new records collected at vaccination sites to a medical record already on file. It also eliminates the potential for duplicate records. It’s a good idea to validate the data against data in reference databases as it is collected. When this isn’t possible, referential matching can help correct errors after vaccine distribution, ensuring a complete and trusted view of each person who receives the vaccine.

By taking these steps to strengthen consumer data capture, state registries will be better able to help match vaccination data with consumers’ medical records, now and after the mass rollout is over.