Hi y’all! I volunteered for a vaccine shift. Me and a couple dozen of my best friends. Here’s the scene: this clinic day was dedicated to second-vaccine doses for nearly 1,000 healthcare colleagues, 12 vaccinator stations, and a constant stream of patients down the hallway. Our location can handle 2 to 3 times this number, if we had vaccine supply to do so (and on last Friday, our location and 9 other UCHealth locations dispensed over 5,000 vaccine doses across UCHealth).
Having been a grateful recipient of both my shots, I’m ready to wade in and do my part as well.
Ever wonder what it is like to be a vaccinator at a high-volume vaccine clinic?
On the Vaccine Front Line
First, you receive an email to do your training on EHR documentation requirements, along with a super quick anatomy refresher on deltoid muscle and intramuscular injections. Easily done, about 10 minutes. Then you report for duty at one of the twice-daily 7-hour shifts. You get a quick in-person briefing, some quick hand-holding (ok, sounds weird in pandemic times), and off we go!
Here’s my station. Because, as my daughter says, I’m totally into ‘hume-optimizing’ (determining the optimal way for humans to do things – sometimes to the great annoyance of family members or colleagues), I thought hard and asked lots of questions of my more experienced medical assistants and nurses sitting nearby. Here’s what I learned:
- Card colors: Green card – ready for another patient; Yellow card – running out of any supplies; Red card – medical question (just embarrassing to hold this one up if you’re a physician).
- Computer: login, find the immunization clinic, filter out discharged patients, sort by time of arrival, and click to remove word-wrap to show more patients per screen.
- The data entry fields pull forward 80 percent of relevant data to each new patient, as well as the vaccine name, lot number, and details, and I’m down to just confirming patient identity, confirming injection site (6- R deltoid, 7-L deltoid: even the physical mapping makes it easy: when patient facing you, the 6 key is on the same side as the patient’s R arm!), and asking the 3 screening questions.
- The shot itself! Use a vaccine syringe (obvious) but don’t stick yourself or the patient unintentionally. Hot tip: When you insert the needle, do it with a quick pop so that breaking the skin and finishing the motion are in the same moment, and the patient’s sensory nerves don’t get a chance to register more than one ‘oh’ of surprise. Specifically, don’t be slow.
- Hot tip from a PA colleague in Interventional Radiology: hold the syringe between your thumb and 3rd and 4th digits, with your index positioned over the plunger. (Really? That’s the way? So much faster than my jab.) Then switch hands, try not to be awkward, plunge, untangle my hands and pull back) and the jab-plunge was now less than a second. Level up! (Gamer talk). After my “technique improvement” lots of patients were surprised: “Hey! Didn’t feel that at all!”
- I notice that this new syringe grasp is reminiscent of the way you are to hold a Chinese Calligraphy brush (see photo), like you are cupping an egg and then grasping the brush. Ah, such elegance.
- Hot tip from a brilliant nurse colleague: After the alcohol swab of the deltoid, pre-attach half of the Band-Aid and let it hang down. That way, you know where to put the shot and you don’t lose track (if no spot of blood) of where it went as you look away to dispose of the syringe. Then flip the Band-Aid fully on – voila! Totally changed my life.
- Click the needle protector closed with one finger, toss in Sharps container.
- Mumble sweet nothings to your anxious client while doing the next steps. Answer any questions.
- Type ‘n’ in the time field to get the time ‘now.’ Click ‘Accept’ to complete the vaccine charting. Their patient portal account is automatically updated, and the State Vaccine Registry is updated (I believe either in real-time or at midnight every night)! Add 15 minutes to write onto a sticky note to attach to their vaccine card for them to know when they can leave if feeling okay.
- Reach for a tiny sticker to put on the vaccine card with vaccine name, lot number, date, and location.
- Smile with your eyes, gesture to the seating area.
- Hot tip from another RN colleague: Wipe down with gloves on, pull an antiseptic wipe for the desk, chair, and relevant surfaces. Whip off gloves, rip and prep an alcohol swab and Band-Aid — easier with gloves off. Get a new pair of gloves, position a new syringe on desk, check if running low on supplies, and raise the green card.
- NEXT! Cycle time when all was humming, as little as 3 minutes. Less time than it took to read this.
Of course, some patients had the temerity to ask questions. Or we would briefly run low on vaccine as the pharmacy team whipped up another batch in the next room, or someone had to run for sticky notes or wipes or gloves etc. Or maybe I NEEDED A POTTY BREAK, okay? Other times, we would have lulls in the action. Then it was up to our green-card-waving skills as to which of a half dozen vaccinators the lone patient would walk to.
Here’s a counterintuitive tip for non-medical workers.
You might think that having your vaccine done by a person in green scrubs or a white coat (in my case, both) would be ideal: they’re doctors or providers. In our organization, nurses wear dark blue scrubs, and medical assistants wear dark purple. Almost uniformly, the docs volunteering haven’t given vaccinations since … medical school. In my case, 30-plus years ago. My recommendation? Go with blue or purple scrubs for technical proficiency and years of practice. Of course, if you want a long medical conversation, by all means stop by my booth!
Here’s my tally — it was actually 55 by end of day. I figured out that I could keep my needle caps on the desk until I had a break to make my hash marks and throw out the caps. The system worked. I know many of my RN and MA partners were quicker than me or had better patient-attracting green-card-waving skills or took shorter breaks. Not bad for my first half-day shift.
This was unlike my daily work.
As a physician in an internal medicine clinic, I would worry about how to reduce the blood sugar of an overweight, depressed and anxious diabetes patient with high blood pressure, severe arthritis, needing wheelchair repairs, a dozen prescription refills and several prior-authorization meds, and now with several new worrisome symptoms and family pressures. As CMIO, I would worry about how to balance the anger of providers spending long hours writing notes and orders versus allowing a sloppy, error-prone, verbal-order, paper-like system. And how to allocate time and effort between reducing physician burnout and improving predictive algorithms when those projects were sometimes in conflict.
Working in a vaccine clinic by contrast was like playing a fun, fast-paced, team-based video game (not that I would know): clear goals, mutual reinforcement, visible progress, strong team camaraderie, repetitive (and improving) physical skills, opportunities for rapid learning, immediate positive feedback and customer appreciation, and excitement over doing a public good. We were in the zone.
Honestly, on good days, both regular clinic and informatics work is like this too. What’s not to like?
It humbles me to part of such an amazing organization that assembled the people, the process, the tools so that I could drop in as part of a well-oiled machine, only a couple weeks into this brand new process. I’ve noted quite a few physician leader colleagues also taking part. So cool.
“Covid-19, Yes, Your Days are Numbered! We’ll take back our streets and those jobs you’ve plundered!” (Check out my latest ukulele song, if you dare!)
CMIO’s take? Serving as a Covid Vaccine vaccinator was one of the most gratifying things I’ve done. I’m signing up for more shifts. See you soon!
[This piece was originally published on The Undiscovered Country, a blog written by CT Lin, MD, CMIO at UCHealth and professor at University of Colorado School of Medicine. To follow him on Twitter, click here.]