Opinion: Improving ‘experience’ of COVID testing, vaccination

Medical providers need to rethink how they offer COVID care and create an easier, more convenient “shopping experience.”

With the new omicron variant headlining news and health officials renewing their push for COVID shots, we find ourselves again in a national conversation about vaccines and the role we all have to play in the pandemic.

While some may never choose to get vaccinated, a great many still sit on the fence of whether to get a COVID shot. And, yes, more can be done to educate citizens about the safety and necessity of vaccinations. Yet, the business sector isn’t doing enough and has also a much-larger role to play in the pandemic. Pressure continues to be placed on retailers and employers to require vaccines, but healthcare providers too can do more to make the process easier and less painful for us all to be in a better spot in this country.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

In certain communities across Georgia and the country, long lines are bound to continue to wrap street corners for COVID testing and vaccinations as omicron spreads through our neighborhoods and flu season inevitably worsens. It is painfully clear, though, from the past 18 months that private enterprise never found the sweet spot for providing the right amount of medical care for handling COVID when it comes to testing and vaccines. Businesses are still on the hook to do more and do better. Medical providers in particular need to rethink where and how they offer COVID care and ultimately create an easier, more convenient “shopping experience” for testing and vaccinations.

When I managed a large urgent care company in Georgia at the start of the pandemic, I found myself on the frontlines trying to stand-up testing sites anywhere I could. My new normal included calls at all hours from strangers asking for me by name so as to be rapidly tested. But then things changed in the summer as fewer people got sick. More testing solutions became available; competing health providers oversaturated the market; and mass vaccinations killed testing demand. Vaccines soon followed suit, with numbers trickling from spring’s peaks. Many got out of the COVID business as a result.

Fast-forward to today with new variants like omicron entering our neighborhoods, and we may still miss the mark on finding the equilibrium point for matching supply to demand for key populations. While some communities have seen a surge in testing and subsequently long lines, others that desperately need medical care are not getting it — either from too few providers or too many complacent patients in those communities.

As covered in the news, many Americans feel COVID fatigue and are unmotivated to get tested. Others in the “wait and see” subgroup of the unvaccinated still remain unconvinced of the urgency of a shot. The private sector has a unique opportunity, then, to address this imbalance by both adding capacity or convincing the reluctant to get medical care. I fear, though, that the private business community isn’t doing nearly enough now.

At the pandemic’s onset, small businesses and community organizations were uniquely positioned to rapidly mobilize where needed most. Hungry entrepreneurs threw up a tent and found hordes of patients desperate for what they could offer. Yet, with the surge of new cases this fall, we haven’t seen the same enthusiasm as we did from the business community last year. Many of the previous pop-up testers and vaccinators have closed their doors for good, as demand dried up over the summer and they couldn’t sustain operations. Fearing that this new surge will be short-lived, many businesses struggle with jumping in again.

At the same time, private enterprise must do more to provide COVID medical care that is more expedient and convenient for everyone. To win over the reluctant who are forgoing services, providers need to make medical care easier to consume. Availability is not enough; COVID testing and shots must attract more impulse buying. It needs to be marketed by local providers and retailers in a way that speaks uniquely and authentically to their constituencies. Simultaneously, it needs to make an unpleasant process more appealing for people to interrupt their day, even if the health benefits are undeniable.

If there is a future lesson a healthcare executive can take away to help our current predicament, it is that there will always be a need for convenient, local, affordable healthcare particularly in the COVID world we live in. The entrepreneurs and businesses who act on this will undoubtedly save lives and realize sustainable volume well into 2022.

Marc Olsen is a healthcare executive who managed the largest urgent care in Georgia and helped create the largest private testing network in the state. He writes and speaks on care delivery and healthcare business issues.