Setting up a Covid-19 vaccination programme for immunocompromised patients

On 1st September 2021 the JCVI  recommended that certain patients aged 12 and over, who were thought to be immuno-suppressed (through disease or medication) around the time of their first two doses of Covid-19 vaccine, should be offered a third primary dose 8 weeks after their second dose. There has been considerable confusion about these third primary doses as they are different from the booster doses that many people who are now over 6 months after their second dose are being offered. Many patients have reported they have been unable to obtain their third primary dose; or have only obtained after a lengthy dialogue with NHS clinicians and managers.

Here are the steps that could be followed to safely implement the third primary vaccine dose programme for immunocompromised patients in England’s NHS.

  1. Identify your target population. This is an essential first step in any vaccination programme (or in any public health programme). Identifying the target population requires searching NHS medical records held by hospitals and general practices.
  2. Clinical diagnoses (such as renal transplant) have to be turned into lists of clinical codes. This requires collaboration between hospital doctors, GPs, other health professionals and health informatics specialists to produce the code lists based on the ICD-10, SNOMED and Read clinical codes that are used by NHS organisations.
  3. Patients need to be identified who were prescribed medications around the time of their first two doses of Covid-19 vaccine that have been identified by the JCVI and specialist groups as possibly leading to a weaker response to their vaccinations. This might not be possible for GPs to do if they did not prescribe the medication themselves as is the case for many specialised drugs used for these patients.
  4. There needs to be adequate consultation with organisation such as NHS Digital, general practices, primary care networks, specialist medical societies, and patient organisations (for example, Versus Arthritis, Blood Cancer UK, Crohn’s & Colitis UK and Kidney Care UK amongst others).
  5. Once an agreed form of words and a unified approach have been reached, there should be a clear public health announcement via reputable sources, and NHS web pages available with clear easy to understand information and FAQs for clinicians, patient support organisations and the public. Clinicians and their teams should ideally be made aware of any announcements from NHS England before the public so that they are able to answer queries from patients, parents and carers.
  6. Those working at NHS 119, vaccine sites or the national covid-19 vaccine call centres must be fully briefed and updated on significant changes before any announcements are made, so that patients calling with queries or to book their Third Primary Doses are not met with a confused response and a lack of a clear process on how to access their vaccines (which damages public trust and confidence, and increases vaccine hesitancy).
  7. Programmes that use clinical codes to search NHS medical records have to be written. These require testing and debugging to make sure they work correctly on each different clinical record system used by the NHS. The NHS does not have a unified electronic medical record system and individual NHS Trusts and general practices will have different systems. These programmes need to be written centrally wherever possible to prevent local areas producing their own versions that may differ from each other and thus not identify patients correctly. This is more straightforward for general practices than hospitals because most general practices mainly use of one two electronic medical record systems (EMIS or SystmOne). The situation is more complex in NHS hospitals because of the many different IT systems used.
  8. Once the programmes are written, they need to be run by local NHS teams as it seems that NHS England is not yet able to run these searches centrally for all of England. In the case of general practices, local CCGs or GP Federations should be able to run the searches to identify patients. Hospitals will also need to run searches to identify eligible patients. The NHS should also make use of National Disease Registers, such as the NHS Blood and Transplant registry, for patient identification wherever possible.
  9. The list of patients generated by the programmes have to be cleaned to remove duplicates and any patients identified in error. Patients who may be unsuitable for vaccination such as the extremely frail or terminally ill need to be removed from the lists. Local NHS teams also need to consider how they approach patients who may have previously refused vaccination.
  10. Patients then need to be contacted about the vaccinations. Most general practices are no longer involved in the Covid-19 vaccination programme. These invitations therefore need to come from organisations that are offering Covid-19 vaccines. This might include hospital clinics, NHS vaccine centres, or GP-led vaccine hubs in areas where GPs are still offering Covid-19 vaccines.
  11. IT systems that record Covid-19 vaccinations (such as Pinnacle) need to be able to record the third primary dose correctly; so that it is not recorded as a standard booster dose or as another first or second dose. This ensures the patient’s vaccination status is accurate, that audits can be done accurately and that recalls can be generated for a booster in 6 months. Details of the vaccination also needs to be uploaded correctly into the patients’ usual electronic health record.
  12. The NHS app needs to correctly display that this is indeed a third primary dose, and that the patient is fully vaccinated; and IT systems need to ensure that the patients can then also be invited for their booster dose (effectively, a fourth vaccine dose for this special group of patients) in due course (typically likely to be six months after the third primary dose). A system for recording vaccines given abroad should also be made available.
  13. Please remember that in most parts of England, your general practice cannot offer you a Covid-19 vaccine or book you an appointment for one. In these circumstances, NHS 119 or your local NHS Covid-19 vaccine centre need to do this. To make access to vaccinations easier for patients, the NHS should ensure that a large number of locations are offering vaccinations so that patients can receive these close to home and do not have to travel long distances. Arrangements for vaccination also need to be made for the residents of care homes and for people who are housebound.
  14. NHS medical records are not always accurate or up to date. Each local area needs to have a named person who patients can contact if they feel they have been missed off the list incorrectly; or to help patients who continue to have any difficulties booking appointments.
  15. In order to provide a booster (fourth) dose for this group after six months, around April 2022, NHS IT systems need to be accurate and record third primary doses correctly and not as booster doses. This will ensure that this vulnerable group of patients do not experience further difficulties or delays in booking these appointments.

All these steps could have been better planned and communicated by NHS England; which would have made the process clearer for frontline NHS staff; as well as making it easier and less stressful for patients to receive their third primary Covid-19 vaccine dose. A well-planned and implemented vaccine programme maintains confidence in the vaccine programme which may reduce vaccine hesitancy, and helps patients and clinicians alike, improving vaccine uptake and reducing pressures on the NHS. It is essential that the problems experienced by immunocompromised patients in accessing their third primary Covid-19 vaccine doses are not repeated, appropriate lessons learned and steps taken by NHS England to ensure accurate recording of vaccinations and recall for future vaccinations for our most vulnerable patients.

Azeem Majeed, Professor of Primary Care and Public Health, Imperial College London, 

Simon Hodes, NHS GP Partner, Watford, UK and private general practitioner at the Cleveland Clinic London.

Fiona Loud, Policy Director, Kidney Care UK, Twitter

Liz Lightstone, Professor of Renal Medicine, Imperial College London, Twitter

This article was first published in BMJ Opinion.