Please form an orderly queue

General practice telephone lines took a pounding this week as the federal government’s vaccination booking system roll-out took yet another turn for the worse. No one was expecting the eligibility checker and vaccine clinic finder site to go live on Wednesday morning but live it went, and while the platform is technically fine, its appointment availability limitations were immediately obvious to anyone trying to use it to actually make a booking.

The Department of Health is insisting that it emailed the 1000 or so listed practices on Tuesday to tell them it was going live the next day, and federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is sticking to his guns with his belief that only practices who had “applied, been approved, and submitted an order themselves” were listed.

No one bothered to tell the receptionists, it seems, and they took the brunt of the subsequent tidal wave of calls. We noticed immediately that only a handful of practices were listed for each postcode and few appeared to be taking online bookings, with most listed as phone booking only. Mr Hunt said “there was always going to be an initial surge and initial demand” on the first day, but it looked to all intents and purposes that Mr Hunt had jumped the gun.

It would of course have made sense to go live next Monday when the actual Phase 1b roll-out is officially due to commence, and to use this week to test the system out and make sure all the listings were functional. That only a couple of clinics using HealthEngine were available makes it pretty obvious that the Minister’s office was keen for an announceable and a premature go-live was worth the risk. A press release was prepared and sent to media outlets on Wednesday morning, and off it went.

We’ve been monitoring two practices – one in rural NSW and one in Melbourne – and while we knew both were ready in theory to start vaccinating next Monday, neither was listed as such on Wednesday. It turns out they were designated GP respiratory clinics and have now been listed as such, with their online bookings using HotDoc. Neither of them are actually taking online bookings though – the rural practice is ready to start vaccinating but is doing the contacting itself, inviting known patients in the right cohort to present themselves from this weekend.

And in late breaking news, we hear that promised supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine that were due to arrive today at one clinic and administered tomorrow haven’t turned up, but a load of flu vaccines unexpectedly have. It’s a debacle.

And while most of the booking systems were supposed to be added this week, as of Friday afternoon the clinic finder site is saying “Clinics are experiencing a high volume of calls at the moment. Please use online appointments where available.” All well and good, but pretty much all of the practices with that capability are now saying of their appointments that they have “none currently available”.

While this confusion is small in the scheme of things, it has been incredibly frustrating for people wanting to get on with it and get themselves vaccinated. Frustrating for practices too, who have very much been left in the dark. And with flu shot season approaching, there is now added confusion. We’re sticking to our argument that had preparations for this started last year, the clown show could have been avoided.

Late this week, the AMA and the RACGP have rolled out the usual suspects to tell the populace to hold its horses and be patient, and this is what we’ll have to do. Form an orderly queue, please, and we’ll all get there eventually. After all, the US suffered similar problems with its VAMS booking system, as detailed in this MIT Technology Review article in late January. Despite its disastrous handling of the pandemic, the US has now vaccinated 100 million people.

In other news, the federal government has extended the temporary COVID-19 MBS item numbers for telehealth for another three months. Perhaps they could plan ahead and decide on how to make this permanent.

That brings us to our poll question for this week:

Will the booking system meltdown damage trust in the government’s handling of the roll-out?

Last week we asked: Is choosing HealthEngine for the booking solution a good PR move? Nope, our readers said: 87 per cent said no, and just 13 per cent said yes.

Vote here and feel free to leave your comments below.


+2 # Lis Herbert 2021-03-22 08:47
I don't think there could be any more mistrust of the governments handling of the vaccine rollout than what there is already - it has obviously not been planned very well at all, with risk and issue mitigation seemingly non existent. For example, who organises doses of the vaccine and sends it on without the devices required to administer it !!

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