Health Systems that Can Talk to Each Other Can Respond Better to Emergencies

The Ghana Ministry of Health is hosting an international meeting on ways to improve health information systems so that countries in the region can better respond to health needs, such as the Ebola epidemic.

Dr. Felicite Chokki-Laleye
Dr. Felicite Chokki-Laleye, professional officer in charge of epidemics and emergency preparedness, West African Health Organization, speaks at the meeting in Accra, Ghana, on data harmonization in health information systems. Photo by MEASURE Evaluation.

ACCRA, Ghana—The Ghana Ministry of Health is hosting an international meeting on ways to improve health information systems so that countries in the region can better respond to health needs, such as the Ebola epidemic.

The conference, co-organized by the West African Health Organization (WAHO) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with support from MEASURE Evaluation, is entitled “Strengthening Health Information Systems towards Interoperability in the West Africa Region.” More than 150 participants from the 15 member countries that make up the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are attending, as well as partner organizations from the United States and Europe.

Dr. Xavier Crespin, director general of WAHO, told attendees that countries need to be able to rely on “high-quality health information to better guide our interventions, allocate our limited resources, and ensure efficient response to various public health emergencies.” The Ebola disease outbreak has “exposed the weaknesses of national health systems in general, and health information systems in particular,” he said—and served as a wake-up call for the need to strengthen mechanisms for timely, reliable information management and sharing updates about epidemic-prone diseases within and between countries in the subregion.

A properly functioning health information systems gets vital information into the right hands when needed, enabling policymakers, health managers, and individual health care providers to make informed choices about everything from patient care to national budgets. Strong health information systems are also crucial infrastructures that support a country’s ability to respond to health emergencies.

“Health information is really at the heart of health systems, and at the heart of developing—and maintaining—a healthy society,” said Mr. Bradley Wallach, acting Mission director for USAID/West Africa, who addressed conference attendees in a 18 May 2015 speech. “Never was this more poignant than at the start of the recent Ebola epidemic, which went undetected by the regional and global community for months, resulting in the largest and deadliest Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen.”

Representatives of WAHO, West African governments, and international and private sector partners have come together to continue developing solutions to the long-term issue of achieving health information systems “interoperability” in West Africa—that is, the ability of governments, health care providers, and communities to access and exchange information about routine health and emerging diseases. Conference organizers and WAHO members are meeting May 18–21 to discuss how to create an enabling environment for improved health across the region and strengthen WAHO’s oversight of regional health information systems reporting. Many insist that efforts to strengthen health information systems will succeed best if they support national and regional priorities; are integrated with other partner initiatives in the region; and are implemented with local leadership.

The current diversity and fragmentation of health information systems impedes the process of rapidly detecting and effectively responding to epidemics beyond the national level, as was demonstrated in the Ebola outbreak. In a region like West Africa, a gap in disease detection in one country poses a threat, not only to that country, but to all of its neighbors. 

USAID’s new Global Development Lab and USAID/West Africa are working to improve the way health information systems function and interoperate, as well as integrate mobile technology to enable near real-time access to health information, said Mr. Merrick Schaefer, lead of the mobile data team at USAID. “Building strong connections between citizens, health workers, governments, and the international community is key to ensuring responsive relief efforts and effective health service provision. Mobile technology helps us do that,” he said.

To date, the U.S government has provided up to U.S. $1.5 billion of assistance in response to the Ebola outbreak. It will also support improved capacity across the region—at national and regional levels—to prevent, detect, and rapidly and effectively respond to emerging infectious threats.

“Stakeholder coordination and collaboration is crucial to achieving health information systems interoperability in West Africa,” Mr. Wallach said. USAID/West Africa is a primary partner with WAHO for regional health information activities. Coordinating and harmonizing approaches “is part of a larger regional movement towards better health care, and part of a commitment to ensure that an outbreak of Ebola or other devastating infectious diseases never again hits this region,” he said.