A University of Ottawa professor is calling a sluggish online booking system for COVID-19 tests launched by eastern Ontario’s children’s hospital “unethical” and “discriminatory.”

CHEO’s online MyChart system, which came online last week, lets parents schedule appointments for children younger than 18 at the Brewer Arena test site.

Available test slots are posted online at 8:30 p.m. the night before, with spots that open up due to cancellations added throughout the day.

But according to Timothy Lethbridge, who teaches software engineering and computer science — and has been isolating ever since his 13-year-old daughter developed COVID-19 symptoms early last week — scheduling a test using the site is “basically a lottery.”

“The rule of thumb is, in order to get an appointment, you have to game the system,” Lethbridge said.

‘A mad rush’

Problems with the MyChart system begin right off the bat, said Lethbridge, as it often takes minutes to gain access while the system sluggishly tries to handle the number of requests.

“At 8:30 it’s a mad rush,” said Lethbridge.

Part of what makes booking an appointment a game of chance, he said, is that MyChart doesn’t tell you whether someone else is filling out the same slot as you.

Lethbridge said he spent much of Wednesday refreshing the page, hoping a cancelled appointment would become available — with no luck. He then tried to book one online that evening for the next day, but also came away empty-handed.

“It’s discriminatory against people who don’t have multiple devices or friends who can help them. It’s discriminatory against people who don’t have tech skills,” Lethbridge said.  

“It’s also discriminatory against people who live in rural areas because their internet will be slower. They’ll have almost no chance at all. It’s discriminatory against people who are disabled in various ways.”

Timothy Lethbridge teaches software engineering and computer science at the University of Ottawa. (Skype)

Delays result of ‘demand issues:’ CHEO

Lethbridge isn’t the only one who’s had problems, however.

Josh Hendry said he made several failed attempts to land an appointment for his three-year-old — both in person at the Brewer site and online — before finally getting a test after heading down early Friday morning.

“Lining up at 5:45 a.m. in the morning made me realize pretty quickly this can’t be how it works to get in,” Hendry said. “We can’t have people lining up to get in when the weather gets colder.”

No one from CHEO was available for an interview Friday, but in an email, spokesperson Patrick Moore called the problem a “demand issue.”

“Our booking system may be slow for some people to access because of the incredible numbers accessing it,” Moore wrote.

Like buying concert tickets

Lethbridge was able to secure a COVID-19 test Thursday after heading down to the assessment centre at around 5 a.m.

He said he’s learned from others that the winning strategy for booking with MyChart involves having family or friends help, using multiple devices to nab one of the available spots.

“You need to do exactly what you’d do if you were buying a U2 ticket for a concert,” he said.

The computer science professor is now creating a demonstration of a more efficient system for CHEO, in the hopes of showing the children’s hospital that a competent tech team could add a few user-friendly features within a few days. 

He said the current system just isn’t equipped to deal with the current high demand.   

“It could just, in the simplest case, emulate the way they do it when you show up for one of those lucky, in-person appointments at six o’clock in the morning,” he said. 

“You know, the first people in say, ‘I’d like an appointment.’ And they give you the next one available.”