The COVID Vaccine Pause: A Case for Greater Patient Engagement

By Josh Weiner

For whatever reason, Johnson & Johnson’s more easily stored, one-shot version of the COVID-19 vaccine just can’t seem to get a break. First off, it was late to the party in getting FDA emergency use authorization—while Pfizer and Moderna versions snagged approval in December 2020, the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine didn’t get the green light until late February. Once it secured the thumbs up, some worried the J&J shot might be inferior (it is not) because its efficacy percentage is trivially lower than its competitors. Then, in early April, contractors at J&J’s Baltimore manufacturing plant accidentally ruined 15 million doses of the vaccine.

But the real shocker came a week later when several women inoculated with the J&J vaccine suffered rare but severe blood clots amid a total of 6.8 million Americans receiving doses. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged states “out of an abundance of caution” to suspend dispensing the J&J vaccine until further investigation.

Despite initial concerns that the pause might fuel vaccine hesitancy and delay getting shots in arms of at-risk populations, the drug’s hiatus may have saved lives. In several early cases of J&J vaccine blood clotting, patients were treated with heparin, which is a normal treatment for blood clots; however, in these cases the heparin worsened the situation. The pause helped educate hospitals and health systems going forward on how to treat similar symptoms in those with the J&J dose.

The upshot for J&J came 10 days into the vaccine freeze when the FDA completed its investigation and cleared the drug with a brief warning. The agency determined that the vaccine’s benefits far outweighed its statistically insignificant risk to patients and resumed the rollout of J&J doses at federal, state, and local levels.

While the hiatus was valuable for health leaders and the public in ensuring the ongoing safety of COVID-19 vaccines, it was also a much-needed wake-up call for vaccine providers on the importance of fast and urgent patient communication. To get in front of the situation, practices needed to quickly alert patients about the pause, address health concerns from patients who had already received the J&J shot, and help patients reschedule. It was only through rapid communication that providers could proactively resolve patient concerns, calm fears, and offer guidance.

Yet in an era of swift and accessible digital consumer technology, not all communication methods are created equal. Simply notifying patients about the vaccine pause via slow and ineffective means—including phone calls, emails, or patient portal messages—wasn’t going to cut it. Manually calling patients is time-consuming and unrealistic in an age when most people don’t answer unrecognized calls or check their voicemail. Likewise, emails and patient portal messages are unsuitable for conveying urgent information. To truly reach patients with speed and efficiency, text messaging is quickly becoming the communication tool of choice for consumers, patients, and healthcare organizations. Not only is the response rate for texts 209% higher than it is for phone calls, but patients overwhelmingly want to connect with providers via texting. Nearly 80% of patients want to receive text messages from their providers, and almost 75% want to be able to send texts to their providers.

But exchanges about the vaccine pause are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of possibilities for expedited patient communication and engagement. From mass health alerts, to notices about sudden practice closures due to weather or disasters, to preventive messages about COVID-19 or flu shot signups, providers’ ability to reach patients at the speed of text matters. Patient engagement from a text-first approach can be further enhanced by the ability to send group texts, allowing a provider to efficiently link up with all their patients or certain diagnostic, demographic, or other groups. In the case of the vaccine pause, the utility and benefit of group texting is immeasurable.

At the end of the day, patients rely on their healthcare providers for accurate and timely information. They also want to be better engaged with practices—84% of patients want more automated communication with providers across the patient journey. However, providers can only fulfill that role by effectively meeting patients where they are, with consideration for communication preferences and best practices.

Providers who take a text-first approach to patient interaction and innovate with digital engagement solutions can reach out at a moment’s notice as well as at key touchpoints in the appointment workflow. Ratcheting up patient communications not only helps patients get the care they need, it also improves outcomes and fills a provider’s schedule.

Josh Weiner is the CEO of SR Health by Solutionreach.