It’s a story many health systems know all too well. Overwhelmed by the volume of people seeking a COVID-19 vaccination, St. Luke’s University Health Network was working hard to get the vaccine to as many eligible individuals as possible. The issue was the communication bottleneck between those who wanted the shot and the number of vaccines available.
The hospital system, made up of 12 locations across eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey, initially attempted to remedy this bottleneck with a simple online intake process that let patients fill out a questionnaire to determine their vaccine eligibility status. From there, St. Luke’s reached out to patients directly to let them know when their vaccine was available. To support the registration process, they increased staffing levels for their existing call center to meet the rapidly increasing volume of calls from patients asking about the vaccine. But they were still struggling, said Director of Marketing and Public Relations Kate Raymond.
“We essentially went from a team of around 20 people to over 100 people. Those folks would be answering calls up until eight at night every single day, and we still had a callback list of about 5,000 people daily. Our team quickly realized this was not sustainable,” Raymond said.
This was bigger than just dropped calls. For every person not receiving a callback, there was also a risk that an elderly or immunocompromised person would not be able to sign up for a vaccine and further risk contracting COVID-19.
Beyond community safety, Director of Development, Information Technology Shishir Singh also feared St. Luke’s existing telecom system couldn’t handle the volume of calls they were receiving and quickly got to work to find a solution before the system potentially broke down. He began looking for a solution that could serve people regardless of an individual’s digital literacy level or preferred language.
“We went back to the drawing board and identified that everyone uses text and voice. So what can we do on these two channels? That’s when we started looking at Twilio as an alternative to our previous system,” Singh said.
In just two weeks, St. Luke's University Health Network built St. Luke’s Shot-Line, an automated scheduling and appointment reminder system that lets patients self-schedule their appointments over the phone and receive reminders in the channel of their choice, using Twilio’s platform.
St. Luke’s was already using Twilio to power their messaging in other communication facets when they included voice into their vaccine communication mix for Shot-Line. Both channels let the patient be contacted in a way that works best for them. Instead of exhausting their legacy telecom system (and employees answering the calls), the system uses cloud communication technology to handle automated messaging to people who sign up for more vaccine information.
By using Twilio, St. Luke's team can prevent overbooking, and also target segmented audiences based on the data within their system. St. Luke’s even customized Shot-Line’s language to its Spanish-speaking patients. Patients are targeted based on location, age, language, and other demographics, and then send an automated message eliminating the need to wait on hold to speak to a live agent. This also lets St. Luke’s improve upon the quality of the data within their system.
“Because we have people opt-in or out, we verify their identity. We also use Twilio Lookup to verify if the number we have is a mobile or landline number, and that’s helped with outreach as well,” Singh said.
Shot-Line has also made vaccination more equitable for those across the digital divide, especially for those who don’t have the technical wherewithal to spend time refreshing a screen or even have easy access to the internet altogether. Given the majority of initially eligible patients were over 70, providing these individuals the option to schedule over the phone was a smoother and more accessible experience. Now, scheduling and confirmation take all of three minutes without waiting to speak to a live person at all.
Instead of abandoning 5,000 calls a day, we now have the ability to reach 60,000 people daily over voice and text. With the automation, we're able to reach all of our customers twelve times over instead of before, where we may not even have reached them once.
“More than 320,000 shots have been given by our network, and we are the highest county for vaccination in Pennsylvania, which we're really proud of. We owe a great deal of that to meeting people where they're at and giving them multiple communication options. It's helped us accelerate that vaccine process and continue to request more vaccines from the state,” Raymond said.
The system has been a smashing success for patients across the 11 counties St. Luke’s serves but it has also been a humbling experience for the St. Luke’s team.
"Instead of abandoning 5,000 calls a day, we now have the ability to reach 60,000 people daily over voice and text. With the automation, we're able to reach all of our customers twelve times over instead of before, where we may not even have reached them once. It’s incredible and very exciting,” Vice President and Chief Information Officer Chad Brisendine said.
And for the patients who received those automated calls? It was nothing short of miraculous according to one patient, Elizabeth, 78, of Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
“I do not have a computer or any other technical devices so that phone call saved me hours in searching for places to call for a vaccine appointment,” she said. “The next day I received my vaccine. It was one of my happiest moments.”