Can Technology Stoke the Flame of COVID Vaccine Desire?

By  |  April 29, 2021, 6:19 PM  |  Techonomy Exclusive


It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full year since COVID-19’s arrival in the US.

Within that long (and yet somehow also short) period of time, we’ve witnessed monumental changes to our personal and professional lives, largely driven by substantial innovations in tech. Zoom and work-from-home have redefined our American workforce and education systems; widespread reliance on Amazon, Instacart, and e-commerce have revolutionized American consumerism; and the proliferation of telemedicine and contact-tracing tools have changed the face of American medicine.

Without a doubt, the crowning achievement in the COVID era has been the development of a number of highly effective vaccines in a fraction of the usual time, with others soon to fast-follow. Modern technology, propelled by an inexhaustible human drive and spirit, made those astonishing accomplishments a reality from scratch.

The dedication, collaboration, and technological brilliance behind this feat of medical science cannot be overstated—and while the rollout itself has been imperfect, we are indeed seeing supply-side issues ultimately work themselves out.

And yes, despite every report of an individual looking high and low for the vaccine, we still find ourselves facing a demand issue, one that the industry knew would exist, yet which has revealed a surprising number of vaccine dissenters, even within the industry itself. Questions, concerns, and a myriad of misinformation and conspiracy theories linger around the topic of the vaccine and its rollout. And the recent J&J findings around blood clots indeed heightened the anxiety. Nerves have ratcheted up so high that one of the largest public education efforts in history recently launched to encourage vaccinations. Meanwhile, corporations are advancing a myriad of efforts to motivate employee vaccination—from doling out extra pay to offering additional time off

While PSAs and employee incentives will surely move some to vaccinate, they do little to fundamentally address the more prevailing, underlying issue – true individualism. Each one of us is not singularly elderly, millennial, of color, a caregiver, etc. Instead, we are always many things, and our viewpoints don’t neatly align with the accepted positions of the group to which we might be most readily classified.  The promotion policies so far don’t ultimately reckon with who exactly has these concerns, why they have them, and how they can be addressed. Said differently, how do you message to me – not who you think I am?  Filling this hole of clinical uncertainty will be critical for us as a country in the near term as well as the long term. So, how can technology be a part of the solution?

My company, Buoy Health, is closely-associated with artificial intelligence – mostly known for our AI-powered symptom checking and care navigation capabilities. (We provide tools for individuals and businesses to help keep populations healthy.)

And while it’s hardly the only technology we employ to address the patient experience within healthcare, our reflex is to first consider its utility for this specific challenge ahead. AI is really good at removing the human element and increasing efficiency with fewer mistakes. It can take complex issues and condense them into easy-to-understand scenarios, like what a diagnosis could be, based on a person’s symptoms. It can also help people navigate to the right in-network care based on a diagnosis.

But when it comes to the infamous COVID vaccine that’s meant to curb a world-wide pandemic, there are better options in the technology stack.  Put simply, the way information is presented to people, and what information is presented, is much more important than you might think. And while getting to an answer (in this case addressing the individual concerns held by people who have up to now chosen not to vaccinate) is crucial. Sounding less like a bot and more like a trustworthy confidant is paramount to the cooperation needed to get to that answer.

In an ideal world, the government entities and medical centers distributing the vaccines would be able to offer not just generic information and FAQs, but would be able to listen to the specific needs, concerns, and experiences of each person, and offer supportive, personalized guidance to all. Yet government and medical professionals cannot scale, and not everyone has access to a clinician. Addressing this dilemma is tricky, especially because information associated with COVID is new. The best solution to engage with millions of users on a level that an over-stretched government bureau or healthcare system simply cannot begin to match is by building a technology tool built on behavioral science, taking into account the cognitive processes within and the behavioral interactions between people.

At Buoy, we’ve partnered with behavioral scientists to give this approach a go. While it’s too soon to conclusively say we’ve moved the needle on decisions to vaccinate, we are seeing a promising rate of adoption, and positive feedback from employers and their workforces. One client reported more than 50% of its employees are opting-in to sharing their vaccine status on our vaccine tool. This is huge in terms of figuring out what an organization’s vaccine coverage looks like to date, building employee momentum towards vaccination and helping these organizations with strategic workplace planning for the future.

This type of technology can help more Americans feel heard, seen, and respected for who they are, rather than talked down to over their vaccine concerns. This is especially critical for populations who have endured decades of discrimination, mistreatment, or neglect from the medical and research communities.  Rebuilding accountability there requires time, consideration, and understanding from every sector of the healthcare world.

Technology can play a meaningful role in encouraging one-to-one vaccination. But today ‘bots’ and artificial ‘anything’ will not be the most effective approach. The time is now to listen, understand, and equip people with meaningful information through behavioral science, and to begin moving the needle, so to speak, on vaccine uncertainty. In an age of great technological leaps, sometimes technology as old as asking the right questions and thoughtful nudges can drive the best outcomes.  

Dr. Andrew Le is Co-Founder and CEO of Buoy Health.

View editorial post