NSW Health’s vaccination booking system is broken


Written by Simon James on .

On 20 March 2020, Australia closed its international borders as case numbers of COVID-19 exploded around the globe. Fifteen months later, NSW Health has still not been able to deliver a robust vaccination booking system to support the state’s vaccination efforts, with the current mashup of hastily implemented technology riddled with problems.

As is the case for Australians outside of NSW, to attempt to book a vaccine, residents start their digital journey at the HealthDirect website where they input some basic information into an online Vaccine Eligibility Checker.

In the days following the Prime Minister’s off the cuff decree that younger people previously excluded from receiving AstraZenica could now chance their arm and seek it out under the guidance of their GP, this service was updated to spruik this out-of-favour vaccine option. At a time where confusion and hesitancy reigns supreme, the phrasing on the introductory page of the site couldn’t be more unclear. And if you are aged over 60, you don’t even rate a mention despite being amongst the people most likely to have a bad experience if you come into contact with the coronavirus.

The website then asks some basic questions such as age, which state or territory you live in, and whether you have previously had any COVID-19 vaccines. After reminding you that the smart people that comprise the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommend the more effective, convenient, nascent international vaccine passport-compatible Pfizer option, HealthDirect then tries for a second time to flog you an AstraZenica vaccination.

A few more simple questions follow including whether you are eligible for Medicare, which may appear to be a strange question to ask as the anyone currently in Australia is eligible for a free jab – just not at a GP clinic if you don’t have Medicare as it turns out.

So far so good, unless you are under the age of 40, in which case you will have needed to jump through a few more hoops to get to this stage. Having established your eligibility, HealthDirect now permits you entry into its Vaccine Clinic Finder. All going well you will be presented with a map and the option to plug in your postcode to see a list of locations where vaccines are available.

Unfortunately the wheels fall off in the Premier State at this point, which is far from ideal at a time when most of NSW’s population is being forced into an increasingly restrictive lockdown, with greatly increased vaccination rates seen as the only way to get the show back on the road.

While HealthDirect is happy to display a long list of sites where it claims vaccines are available, in the author’s experience trying to book vaccinations for both himself and other family members over several weeks, clicking through to any of these options is an exercise in futility.

It’s important to understand that each hospital has deployed their own appointment booking system, with HealthDirect simply acting as a centralised referral system. One could quibble about the design and length of the bookings forms patients are expected to navigate – all slightly different – which can take between 10-15 minutes to complete, but the biggest problem NSW residents are likely to face is getting to the end of this tedious data entry exercise, only to find that there are no available appointments, on any day in the future, at any time.

“Try another location,” you may say.

Great idea, however as each hospital has deployed its own IT solution to handle bookings, there is no way to transfer all the information you have diligently supplied to one hospital, to the next, or the next, or a GP clinic with a different booking system again, and certainly not to a GP clinic promoted by HealthDirect that only offers telephone bookings.

While it wasn’t publicised with any fanfare and Pulse+IT has yet to find any evidence of a public tender process having taken place, we have been reliably informed that a state-wide solution is on the way for NSW Health hospitals that will hopefully resolve this particular issue, as well as some of the other glaring problems that have yet been ironed out.

As well as the booking forms being served up by the various hospitals in Sydney being bloated with unnecessary and often redundant questions, they are glitchy, and in some cases don’t allow the user to get to the end of the process no matter how hard they try.

Blue-coloured Medicare cards have a specific expiry day printed on the card (whereas the more typical green Medicare cards only have an expiry month) and are not accepted by the forms designed by some hospitals, but are by others.

Some fields that a particular hospital’s booking form considers to be mandatory can’t be clicked or typed into by the user, so again, it’s impossible to get progress and book an appointment time. And if you are lucky enough to get to the end of the process and managed to find an available date for your first appointment, there’s no guarantee you will be able to select a date for your second which will prevent you from booking in at all.

For the times we are living in, vaccination booking systems should be viewed as essential public health infrastructure and managed accordingly. While sources from NSW Health report having pulled together the current system in what they call record time – I assume compared to the IT systems they rolled out during the Spanish Flu of 1918 – Pulse+IT contends that jurisdictions have had well over a year to get ready for the arrival of vaccinations and what NSW Health has delivered is underwhelming.

So are there any green shoots? Perhaps. In recent days HealthDirect has added the ability to sort available appointments by “Earliest Available” as well as proximity to your postcode, so some attempts at improving the platform are clearly underway. Unfortunately after extensive searching over several hours across a number of days this week, the author was still unable to find a location in Sydney with any available appointments.

Coincidentally, in our poll last week, we asked: Have you had a good experience booking your COVID vaccination? Most readers are positive about their experience: 80 per cent said yes, just 20 per cent saying no.

We’ll take a look at Tasmania’s situation next week. In the meantime, our poll question this week is:

If you have had a COVID-19 vaccination, was it administered in a hospital?

Vote here and feel free to leave your comments below.

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