In Buffalo, Healthcare Leaders Turn to the Community for Vaccination Uptake

March 11, 2021
A community-based healthcare organization and its affiliates serving the Buffalo, N.Y, region have leveraged referral application technology to streamline the entire vaccination process

Many experts are in agreement that the mass rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations is one of the biggest challenges the sector has ever faced. One healthcare leader even told Healthcare Innovation recently that the vaccination education and outreach effort is “the single greatest patient engagement challenge of our lives.”

Indeed, the task is two-fold: first, ensuring distribution, and then actually getting the vaccines into the arms of Americans. Earlier this year, G-Health Enterprises, a community-based healthcare organization serving the Buffalo, N.Y., region—with affiliates including a home health agency, an accountable care organization (ACO), an independent physicians association, and others—stepped up to participate in the state’s strategic plan to vaccinate New Yorkers for COVID-19. However, the organization experienced these very challenges when its first vaccine clinic didn’t go as expected.

With quickly evolving New York State regulations regarding the vaccine process, the G-Health team was required to create an efficient logistical workflow in a very short period of time. Further complicating matters were the challenges associated with reaching Buffalo’s vulnerable populations, many of whom do not have primary care physicians and may not be in a position to access communications about eligibility or how they might receive a vaccine.

As it was standing up its first vaccine clinic, G-Health and community members experienced extended wait times due to onsite registration and documentation processes. Gathering patient information was cumbersome while individuals stood in long lines, often outside in cold winter weather. As such, medical staff had to focus on data entry and cumbersome paperwork, G-Health officials recounted. 

To address these issues, G-Health leaders moved forward with two key actions. First, one of the enterprise’s affiliates, the Buffalo-based Urban Family Practice, partnered with the Belle Center, a local community-based organization (CBO), to serve as the host site for the vaccine clinic and to support identification and outreach to individuals in the community eligible for the vaccine. The Belle Center was one of 35 community-based pop-up sites in New York committed to vaccinating 25,000 people in just one week in early February.

Second, G-Health turned to healthcare technology company Holon Solutions to streamline the patient information-gathering process. With Holon’s referral application specifically, Urban Family Practice and the Belle Center used the system’s questionnaire capabilities to create a form for capturing the necessary demographic and insurance information for each patient.

The Belle Center ended up leveraging the application to create a vaccine referral for 89 eligible community members at the onset, using the form in advance of the event. Upon receiving the referrals, the practice created charts for the individuals in their electronic medical record (EMR) system, entered the orders for the vaccine, the consent, and scheduled the individual for a vaccine appointment, officials explained. Indeed, by collecting community members’ information and creating orders in the EMR in advance, the G-Health-Belle Center partnership was able to reduce the time clinical staff spent on administrative activities the day of the vaccination clinic. That meant more people could receive a vaccine in less time, with a lot less waiting, they contended.

Ultimately, more than 94 percent of the people entered into the Holon referral application as vaccine referrals arrived on the day of the second clinic event and received their first dose. Additional members of the local community who qualified for the vaccine were also invited to participate as walk-ins. In all, more than 360 people received a vaccine at the event in just three hours.

What’s more, with these COVID-19 vaccines, they must be used within a certain timeframe. This means there must be enough people lined up in order to open a vial that would have to be discarded if all the doses were not given out consecutively, explains Nicole Pearcy, director of value-based payments, G-Health Enterprises. “The operational flow is better as we are able to schedule appointments rather than have long wait lines for walk-ups. Utilizing Holon for the second clinic also helped give an idea of how many people were scheduled and how many we could have on standby in case not everyone showed up,” she adds.

Thanks to these results, Urban Family Practice plans to engage additional CBOs using the Holon platform to streamline all future COVID-19 vaccination clinics, its officials asserted. And, G-Health’s ACO, Greater Buffalo United Accountable Care Organization (GBUACO), is deploying Holon Referrals to additional locations to reach even more members of the community. To that end, Pearcy notes that the primary care ACO has more than 150 primary care physicians, and this allows “GBUACO to widely distribute provider education and patient resources throughout Western New York.”

There is also a larger trend that Pearcy believes is important: CBOs have become an essential element of COVID-19 treatment and response strategies, as they “create a ‘medical neighborhood’ where an equal emphasis is put on clinical and community support and resources,” she says. Pearcy additionally notes that G-Health Enterprises has focused on removing barriers from social determinants of health (SDOH) since its inception, with an increased concentration during the pandemic as vulnerable populations were hit the hardest.

“In the age of social media, there is substantial misinformation being spread on a large scale that can cause people to be wary of and confused by medical professionals. People tend to take messages more to heart if they are coming from trusted individuals in their lives, such as pastors, educators, employers, and other community leaders,” Pearcy says. She adds, “This becomes especially true as we aim to vaccinate communities of color who have historically suffered mistreatment in medical research and healthcare systems. Building a medical neighborhood facilitates collaboration, communication, and trust between organizations that serve as clinical and social supports to the community.”

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