Developers scramble to fix issues with national COVID vaccine booking platform

Matt Woodley

18/03/2021 5:32:05 PM

Confusion over the site’s launch date has seen general practices bear the brunt of people demanding coronavirus vaccination appointments.

Stressed general practice staff member.
General practice staff were overwhelmed with people hoping to book COVID vaccination appointments.

Since the unexpected launch of the Commonwealth COVID vaccine booking platform on Wednesday, general practices across Australia have been inundated with calls from a general public that is hungry to protect itself against COVID-19.
While the platform was originally designed to allow eligible patients to book online with their regular practice, or one nearby, many participating clinics only had a phone number listed on the site, leading to jammed phone lines, angry patients and upset general practice staff.
Adelaide GP and practice owner Dr Alvin Chua told newsGP the sudden nature of the platform’s launch, combined with a lack of communication regarding vaccine availability and booking mechanisms, left him feeling ‘ambushed’.
‘When we signed up for the COVID vaccine clinic rollout, we were under the impression that a national online system would be available. But unfortunately this has not happened,’ he said.
‘Whilst we have our own online booking … the online search [via the national platform] only leads to a page that says phone booking only. At the very least a link to our website would’ve helped as we could have directed them to HotDoc to make a booking.
‘As for phones, we had multiple email complaints from patients who could not get through. Some waited 30–45 minutes, while our VOIP system also crashed and had to be rebooted three times as a result of call volumes.
‘It added unnecessary stress to an already stressful day for my staff – some of whom were in tears, especially from demanding patients who weren’t even our regulars.’
Dr Chua’s experience was not unique.
Chair of General Practice Gold Coast Dr Kat McLean said she is aware of many clinics that were swamped with phone calls from angry patients who had followed advice to check the online platform and try to book vaccine appointments that, in many cases, simply do not exist yet.
‘It’s been incredibly confusing for GPs and practices,’ she told newsGP. ‘Yesterday’s announcement and people being directed to phone clinics for immunisation bookings really caught GPs and practices off guard.
‘My understanding is certainly they were not aware that that was going to happen. I’ve also heard from a couple of GPs that they’ve only just received their information packs.
‘It would have been great if they’d had that at least the day before the announcement happened, rather than the day following. There still appears to be quite a lot of confusion and uncertainty as to how the booking platforms work and integrate.’
The sudden nature of the launch was also a surprise to Emma Hossack, CEO of the Medical Software Industry Association (MSIA). She told newsGP the site was originally scheduled to go live on Monday 22 March, in line with phase 1b of the rollout.
‘There’s definitely been an escalated timeframe on all of this being made available,’ she said.
‘We were expecting to have it all set to go and in a good, solid way by next Monday. So there’s obviously been pressure to get things working faster, and as a result of that some of the things which are actually not in bad shape aren’t quite ready for public exposure.
‘It’s absolutely an enormous shame – particularly now, when everyone is so stretched and so stressed that that occurred – but I just don’t know where we can really point the finger. It’s just one of those things in a pandemic.
‘But we’re actually pretty positive that these things will iron out quite fast, and it’ll be probably one of the best appointment experiences that people have.’
While it is not clear from where the directive to change the website’s scheduled launch date came, MSIA medications team member David Clarke said it would be ‘unfair’ to suggest that the site’s host, healthdirect, had acted unilaterally. However, he also expects the site will function as intended soon.
‘They went earlier than we had anticipated and as a result, some of the links to the booking engines are not loaded up yet. That’s still in progress,’ he said.
‘Platform builder HealthEngine obviously had some that were ready, which is why they were up, and the other ones are following quickly thereafter.
‘So we would expect within the next couple of days those links will be up and it’s not going to be HealthEngine-specific.’
Once ready, the site will be able to provide patients with three options for securing COVID vaccination appointments, depending on the booking system the general practice uses: 

  • Some will have integrated booking systems, where patients will be able to book directly from healthdirect’s directory, as well as identify beforehand whether or not there are appointments available
  • Others will offer non-integrated booking, which will instead have a link the clinic website where people can make a booking using the existing booking arrangements
  • Clinics that don’t have an online booking system will be the only ones with a ‘phone only’ option
Gold Coast GP Dr Kat McLean is aware of many clinics that had to deal with phone calls from angry patients. 

According to Ms Hossack, the MSIA, Department of Health and all other stakeholders involved in developing the site are still committed to a ‘no wrong door’ policy and she expects this functionality will be available soon.
In the meantime, GPs like Dr Todd Cameron will likely be dealing with phone calls confused patients.
‘It’s not yesterday. It’s ongoing, and it will continue to be ongoing,’ he told newsGP. ‘We don’t have a solution and we can’t answer the questions.
‘I deal with a lot of practice owners. This is causing everybody a lot of anger that is unnecessary at a time that they’re really busy already.
‘We only have enough staff for the number of phone calls that we get in a normal amount of time. It’s not like we have three extra staff members that we can ring up to come in and answer phones.’
Aside from the added stress, Dr Cameron said the site’s problematic launch has also likely had a financial impact on many clinics.
‘Wasted activity is frustrating,’ he said. ‘We have to run lean businesses because they’re not high margins in general practice.
‘So when you run a lean business and somebody piles an extra bunch of work in there that, to be blunt, you’re not being paid for, it’s disheartening.
‘You don’t get paid for phone calls, you get paid for consulting. So saying the same thing a million times to people is not constructive, it’s just wasteful activity.
‘There’s no reward for that. There’s no money coming in, it’s just phones ringing.’
The MSIA has directed concerned GPs and practice owners to contact their booking clients for assistance, while there will also be a number of webinars running in the coming days.
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