CVS app glitch makes — then cancels — vaccine appointments. And it gets worse.

CVS Pharmacy has a widely used app and site to schedule various vaccinations, including for COVID-19. The problem? It has a glitch that allows customers to schedule appointments that are then cancelled without explanation.

COVID-19 vaccine is administered to masked patients at a vaccination center.
SeventyFour / Shutterstock

CVS Pharmacy, the retail division of $292 billion CVS Health, has a widely used app and site used to schedule various vaccinations, including those for COVID-19. But there's a problem: it has a glitch that allows customers to schedule appointments that are then cancelled without explanation several hours later.

The issue involves so-called disqualifying answers. In other words, if a customer says something that should block their appointment (such as that they are allergic to an ingredient in the vaccine or that their prior shot was too recent, etc.), the app is supposed to halt the process. Instead, it accepts the disqualifying answer, asks several more questions, and then displays that the appointment has been approved.

Several hours later — in one instance, it was the next day, which was the day of the scheduled shot — it cancels the appointment without a specific explanation. Instead, it offers a list of possible reasons, but doesn’t say which, if any, apply. (In our test efforts, none did apply.) 

CVS declined to discuss the glitch, including how it happened and what customers should do about it. The company did send a statement that didn’t address the issue at all. (How delightfully corporate.)

For the record, the  statement in its entirety reads: “Our team was able to quickly build a digital vaccination scheduling experience on CVS.com and through the CVS App. Developed with the end user in mind, we adjusted the scheduling tool to meet changing recommendations by the CDC throughout the pandemic and updated it regularly to ensure a seamless experience for our patients. With guidance from the CDC and Federal Government, our digital scheduling system uses self-attestation to help reduce barriers and improve access to vaccinations. We administered 59 million vaccines in 2021, with the vast majority successfully booked using our digital scheduling system. In the rare instance an appointment is canceled, patients have the option to reschedule using the digital tool, or by contacting their local pharmacy team.”

What appears to be happening is that the system doesn’t look at the answers closely enough to decide whether the appointment should be approved, but somehow reviews the answers hours later. From a programming perspective, this makes little sense. The answers aren’t open-ended questions, where the user can write in answers. They are multiple choice, along with the material to provide dates in their format. 

It should be a straightforward issue to block an appointment the instant a disqualifying answer is given. 

The second issue is what happens once the system figures out the appointment should never have been approved. It sends a cancellation note and encourages the user to try setting it up again. That’s key. If the user doesn’t know the reason the appointment was canceled,there's an excellent chance they'll do it wrong again and enter an endless loop.

Here is the helpful message the CVS system sends: “We’re sorry to cancel your appointment(s). If you did not request this, we may have canceled due to weather conditions, a change to vaccine supply, or another issue impacting your pharmacy. We know this vaccine appointment is important for you, and apologize for any concerns or inconvenience. We're here to help you get your vaccination(s) as soon as possible. To reschedule, please visit our vaccine scheduler to book your new appointment(s) or call 1-855-287-3456 (TTY: 711) to speak to an agent for more information.”

By the way, that agent referenced apparently has no access to the reason an appointment was cancelled, so that was more of a delightful waste of time.

This all started to remind me of a Seinfeld episode where Jerry reserved a rental car, but the agency gave it away anyway. In athis case, CVS knows how to make an appointment, but it doesn’t know how to hold an appointment. 

After CVS media relations wasn’t willing to answer questions about the glitch, I reached out to various other CVS people — including a former CVS senior executive who ran into the glitch, couldn’t get around the problem, gave up and scheduled an appointment at Walmart.

It gets worse. I tried calling the CVS pharmacy where the shot was scheduled to find out what was going on. The phone system asked if this involved a vaccine. I screwed up and answered truthfully — which sent me a call center that had no information on why it was canceled. After begging to be connected to the store at issue, they finally agreed — then transferred me to the wrong store.

I went through the whole process again and, they again sent me to the wrong store. The third time, I chose to select the option for “are you calling from a doctor’s office?” (I briefly considered being technically accurate by driving to a physician's office and calling from the waiting room. But my laziness outranked my honesty.)

Having chosen the doctor option, I quickly got through to the relevant pharmacist who found the issue: the calendar was two days too early. When I rescheduled with the new date, all went perfectly.

This made clear that the system — at some level — understood the calendar issue. Why didn’t it block the appointment immediately upon seeing that answer? And when it didn’t, why wasn't the cancellation notice specific so there was no need to fight to talk to a pharmacist?

The strangest element is the delay between the error and the appointment cancellation. Was someone manually reviewing appointments? That seems unlikely. Then again, it’s also highly unlikely that the system wouldn’t detect the error, then somehow find it many hours later.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon