You may have seen stories on the news about healthcare providers tossing out COVID-19 vaccines due to improper temperature or handling. In a global pandemic that has already been immeasurably tragic, vaccine wastage adds insult to injury. Unfortunately, it’s par for the course: The World Health Organization estimates that more than 50% of all vaccines are wasted due to equipment failure or poor planning.
While getting a shot into someone’s arm sounds simple enough, coordinating the inoculation of more than 300 million people is actually quite complex. Fortunately, sophisticated technology can help—including many tools that are already in place, according to John Ezzell, cofounder and executive vice president of BIAS Corp., an IT services company and Oracle partner.
“FedEx is the leading logistics provider sending millions of packages around the world,” Ezzell said. “Companies like Lowe’s already manage thousands of SKUs across thousands of stores. And plenty of tracking is already in place. The Federal Aviation Administration knows flight information on every plane in the air at all times.”
The challenge is putting the pieces together and getting buy-in from a large, diverse and disparate group of stakeholders.
“Combining inventory management, logistics and tracking of millions of vaccinations is new territory,” Ezzell said. “It’s not something that’s been done in this era. We have the tech infrastructure—it’s how fast governments can implement it.”
As creators and stewards of the infrastructure, technology companies are ideally positioned to help things go smoother and faster.
“They have the scalability and accessibility,” said Sylvie Thompson, vice president of transformation for NTT DATA Services, an IT service management company.
“Solutions need to be cloud-based and open-source so we can get to it in multiple ways. That’s more important than who’s operating it. As we add more vaccine sites, for example, we layer in more complexity. An open and scalable platform helps facilitate operations.”
Something else that technology companies bring to the table is an appreciation for user experience.
“They’ve spent years honing their specialty and delivering applications that are human-centric,” Thompson said. “Big Tech applications are proven and viable products.”
Thankfully, technology companies aren’t just hearing the call for help. Generously, it’s also answering it. Here are four important ways how.
1. Forecasting Demand
The first way that tech companies are helping the vaccination effort is by forecasting demand. For example, IBM is using its Watson Health Analytics software to get insights on ZIP codes, including the demographics and health status of residents, as well as their attitudes toward vaccination. The process is helping hospitals and state governments determine in which areas the vaccine is needed and wanted so supplies can be rationed appropriately.
In Chicago, city officials use Salesforce to help them distribute vaccines equitably. In partnership with digital transformation services company MTX, the Salesforce platform is being used as a vaccine management program. Its data-driven analytics can measure community engagement, identify high-priority populations and help public health agencies respond to misinformation.
2. Managing the Supply Chain
In light of the cold chain and special handling that COVID vaccines require, supply chain management is another challenge that technology companies are addressing.
“The biggest issue in vaccine distribution is the last mile,” Thompson said.
“It’s the smallest distribution unit, getting the vaccine from the regional holding or storage facility and into an arm. The last mile is always a challenge for supply chain operators. Many third-party logistics providers don’t even venture into last-mile space because of the challenge. But we have consumer patients waiting. Any delay, such as weather or traffic, can magnify the issue.”
Delivering vaccines to facilities that aren’t equipped to store them can increase the risk of waste. Enter artificial intelligence company Macro-eyes, which uses machine learning to predict vaccine readiness for state health facilities by analyzing public and government-provided data and satellite imagery.
For example, it looks for evidence of backup power supplies and the number of mobile phone users in an area. By combining datasets, it can make predictions about demand as well as vaccine security.
3. Tracking Patients
Because the tracking requirements for COVID vaccines are more robust than with other inoculations, Big Tech is helping here, too.
“If you get the flu vaccine, you fill out paperwork and get a shot in the arm and that’s all there is,” said Cheryl Rodenfels, CTO of Americas Healthcare for Nutanix.
“Lot numbers are tracked but not assigned to people. The COVID vaccine requires adding special data fields to vaccination doses because it comes in a vial and needs to be subdivided. The individual dose needs to be barcoded and attributed to a specific patient to be tracked.”
Pharmaceutical companies turned to SAP for help setting up a vaccination collaboration hub where they can manage distribution and patient tracking while also verifying doses in order to prevent counterfeit drugs from reaching patients.
“SAP made it easier for hospitals and health systems to roll out the vaccine more quickly and organized,” Rodenfels said.
4. Analyzing Data
Given the sheer amount of information that’s being collected and shared by vaccine makers, logistics companies, health systems, state governments and federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), perhaps the largest challenge to which technology companies are contributing is data management.
“From transportation tracking to the workflow of getting vaccines into the syringe, labeled and administered to the patient, it’s a huge amount of data,” Rodenfels said.
“There’s also the tracing of side effects. Data is generated every step of the way. The CDC wants to see anonymized numbers on a daily basis. With other medications or vaccines, reporting might be weekly or monthly.”
When vaccination commenced, everyone from vaccine makers to healthcare systems had to develop a vaccine tracking system of its own.
“Any hospital CIO knows how chaotic it is,” Rodenfels said. “They’re fighting to get the vaccines, but they weren’t ready with reporting, tracking, storing and training. Most hospitals put regular IT work on hold. It was baptism by fire.”
In response, Oracle collaborated with government entities to help manage the data. Specifically, it created the cloud-based Electronic Health Record Database, a real-time vaccine tracking system that now serves as the CDC's central vaccine data repository, as well as a portal through which vaccinated patients can report side effects.
‘The Next Catastrophe’
While pandemics of this size happen only once a century, vaccine technology that has been put in place for COVID-19 may be used in other capacities going forward.
“Who knows what the next catastrophe will be, but now we have documented processes in place,” Ezzell said.
“We’ve seen creative ideas on how to roll this out, and we can look to best practices created across countries, states and municipalities.”
In many cases, tech providers have exceeded expectations and continue to refine their solutions,” said Ezzell.
“We can use what we have learned with natural disasters, which are becoming more prevalent. I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to leverage technology to help people faster.”
Stephanie Vozza is a contributing writer who specializes in business and productivity. She is a columnist for FastCompany.com, and her byline has appeared in Inc., Entrepreneur and Success magazines. Find her on Twitter @StephanieVozza.
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