Why I decided to build my own vaccine booking search engine instead of using the Government’s one

Find a vaccination clinic on COVID-19 Near Me (covid19nearme.com.au/find-a-vaccination-clinic)

We’re about to reach 200 days into the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Australia. This month is expected to be huge for vaccinations, with weekly supplies of Pfizer vaccine in the millions and Moderna vaccines arriving later in the month.

Despite this, the official Government COVID-19 vaccine eligibility checker and “Vaccine Clinic Finder” continues to have significant data challenges resulting in a poor user experience. While the tool makes it easy to find clinics nearby, it only shows booking availability information for some clinics. And when it does show availability information, it isn’t always correct.

That’s why last month, I built a COVID-19 vaccination clinic finder on COVID-19 Near Me:

Announcing the COVID-19 Near Me vaccination clinics near you feature

More on this later. But first, let’s break down why the official channel is so hard to use.

A patchwork system

It’s not surprising the data has been so patchy. Unlike our friends across the ditch who are using a centralised booking system, we’ve ended up with a myriad of booking systems used by GPs, Pharmacies and state clinics.

This means you, the avid vaccine booking searcher, may need to make some phone calls and check a few clinic’s booking websites to check availabilities individually.

The poor team at HealthDirect (who run the official search tool) are probably in integration hell, thousands of clinics all wanting to be listed with availability information. It’s not their fault there’s no consistency of booking systems.

The federal government awarded HealthEngine to run the Commonwealth-procured online Booking Platform. One of the benefits of this platform is that booking availability flows through to the official clinic finder. But it appears very few clinics have actually used the platform (my estimate from the clinics listed is ~200, but there could be more hidden from view). My guess is the low take up might be because clinics can’t use the platform if they already have an existing booking system.

GP clinics

The majority of GPs have landed with one of two booking service providers — HotDoc and HealthEngine (the paid version). Both are great products that does what you’d expect. But the availability integration with HealthDirect, especially for Pfizer vaccine now, is still questionable.

Putting aside the whole Pfizer vs Moderna vs AstraZeneca thing for a second (I want to demonstrate a data accuracy issue here), consider this search result for Pfizer clinics near Ryde, sorted by earliest available:

Search result showing clinics near Ryde, NSW sorted by the earliest available bookings

Oh look, the first listing is showing a booking available within 2 days! But when you click through to the booking link, you’ll find the clinic doesn’t even have Pfizer bookings:

Search for Pfizer, and yet only AstraZeneca bookings available

That’s disappointing, maybe someone took the last booking. Don’t fret, let’s try the second listing! Oh… this time there is a Pfizer booking option, but the next one isn’t until 2nd December.

2nd December is more than 2 days away :(

Alright, let’s try something a little further down? Oh look, two clinics listed as having bookings within 30 days.

These two clinics are supposed to have bookings within 30 days?

Yeah nah, neither have bookings available:

No booking for you :(

In fact, on the first page 8 out of 10 listings do not have bookings available within the availability period described. Which begs the question, where does this data come from? It’s not like these bookings are being snapped up by others. If they were, they’d disappear from the search results after little while… but no, those results are always there!

I’m not sure what the issue is behind the scenes. Perhaps these bookings are general consultations or bookings for other vaccine types being mixed together and shown in the search results. Who knows.

Whatever it is, it makes the overall user experience quite poor and the sorting by “earliest available” basically useless.

State and territory clinics

States and territories have decided to go their own way with their booking platforms for the jurisdiction-run clinics. Victoria’s custom booking system is built by Microsoft, Tasmania’s appears to be built by Oracle. NSW have different booking sites depending on which local health district runs the clinic, each needing their own logins to check availabilities. What a mess.

South Australia is the odd one out, opting to use the aforementioned Commonwealth Booking Platform. Thank you South Australia.

Each of these separate booking systems need significant engineering effort to integrate and get real-time availability information shown in the search results. So far, only NSW and SA has real-time availability. Everyone else will need to create an account on the state and territory website to find bookings.

Good luck finding pharmacies

The share of vaccines being allocated and administered by pharmacies is growing. While the HealthDirect site lists most pharmacies administering COVID-19 vaccines, very few currently have booking availability information.

That’s because pharmacies tend to use completely different booking platforms from GPs. Some pharmacy groups like Blooms the Chemist and Chemist Warehouse have their own booking platforms. TerryWhite Chemmart is unusual in that it uses HealthEngine. But MedAdvisor or GuildLink are the popular choices for those who don’t run their own booking systems.

However, neither of these platforms are providing availability information to HealthDirect, you have to go in and check them individually. That is unless…

…you build your own

Yeah, so last month, I decided to build a COVID-19 vaccination clinic finder on COVID-19 Near Me.

At first, it was just to help with discoverability of pharmacies going online with COVID-19 vaccines. The HealthDirect site doesn’t always list all clinics, so the first part was aggregating clinics from a bunch of different sources including pharmacy websites and manually collated lists.

But I soon realised without proper booking availability information, we might as well be using the HealthDirect site. So began the month-long rabbit hole of going through each of the booking systems and building connectors for the popular ones.

Availability information from scratch

I started off with pharmacies, knowing the major pharmacy platforms hadn’t integrated with HealthDirect and there was a major gap in availability information there. Some chemists were proactive, reached out and asked to be added/integrated which was great!

Next up was fixing the broken availability information for the popular booking providers. I spent weeks testing the edge cases. Are you sure these bookings are for COVID-19 vaccinations? What if a clinic administered both AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines? What if the bookings are for 2nd doses only, not 1st dose? What if the clinic only accepted bookings over the phone? What if the clinic doesn’t accept new patients? The list goes on and on…

Again, some booking providers were proactive, reached out and provided some handy tips. I won’t name names here, but a big thank you to those providers. For others, I just had to find out the hard way. But, I think I’m finally at the point where the booking availability information is accurate the majority of the time (ha, famous last words).

Today, COVID-19 Near Me supports availability info for an additional 14 booking providers, with more being added every week. Yesterday, I added availability info for two new booking providers, plus Pfizer jabs at the Victorian state clinics and Northern Territory clinics — none of which are currently available through the official search tool.

What’s next?

Some booking systems demand you provide your personal details before you can see availability information. Some require email or SMS verification before you can get appointment information. Some even require you to prove your identity first, making it basically impossible to automatically check availability info for.

The Victorian state clinic booking site is an example of requiring email verification, and is the first of many new sites I’ll be adding over the coming weeks with this extra hurdle.

Too many steps

In my opinion, there are two major pain points in the current system. Too many booking systems and too many hurdles just to check if a clinic has any bookings available.

When people are searching for vaccine bookings, they don’t want to be checking multiple sites for availabilities. The HealthDirect site was supposed to fix this, but it seems like they’re struggling to onboard more booking providers (and even get the existing providers to provide correct information).

Moreover, people definitely don’t want to be registering and providing personal details to countless sites just to see if there’s a booking available! If you have a booking available, just put it upfront so people don’t waste their time putting in details onto your site only to discover there’s no bookings to begin with.

With COVID-19 Near Me, I’m hoping to solve some of these pain points. But ideally, the official site should have solved this months ago.

To be continued…

I’m sure I’ll have more to write about this in the future. But for now, thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed a bit of insight into why I built what I built and the sort of hurdles I’ve had to jump through so far.

…and if you’re looking for a booking, feel free to give COVID-19 Near Me a go and let me know how you go:

Other related/similar projects

covidqueue.com provides booking availability for NSW and Victorian state clinics

gpvaccinesearch.com provides booking availability for GPs listed on HotDoc

I make things on the internet like COVID-19 Near Me and AnyTrip