Using Technology to Boost Healthcare

In developing countries and communities, information communication technologies have increasingly become the central cog in economic and social development.

By Sam Wambugu, Senior Health Informatics Specialist

NAIROBI, KenyaIn developing countries and communities, information communication technologies have increasingly become the central cog in economic and social development.

Digital technologies like the mobile phone are now in the hands of many people who stand to benefit the most from them.

Developing countries are, therefore, savouring revolutionary opportunities that the developed countries have for long employed in diverse sectors.

Examples include monitoring weather and providing planners with relevant information, generating information for efficient and profitable agri-business and giving citizens platforms to express themselves through the social media.

Others include increased access to financial services for the previously unbanked population, and maternal health messaging for women who live beyond the reach of health care workers.

Take the health sector. Developing countries have been working to strengthen and modernise their systems for collecting and aggregating health information using new tools. But the gains made have been below expectations.

To be sustainable, there is a need to deploy tested and tried business processes and technology tools that have largely been used by the private sector in their business operations. 

Current IT systems do not fully meet the business needs of the health sector, whose core goal is to provide quality health services for a healthy population. 

The majority of information systems have failed to scale up, with 60 per cent of them not surviving for long. Also, these solutions often re-invent the wheel, rather than building on robust platforms, infrastructure and shared services available.

Many of the systems are in silos — they can’t share data across sectors or organisations. Assessment of many of these contraptions show the same results; their design and development is uncoordinated, resulting in systems that can’t secure sensitive patient information.

Health workers, the primary users of these systems, often dislike them — sometimes for good reasons. The workers are not always part of the conceptualisation, design and deployment of these technologies.

Rather, IT gurus lead the way and the result is a sophisticated tool but for the wrong job.

Many health workers heave under the weight of entering and re-entering data into these monolithic systems. Sometimes, two systems yield different results for the same question. The information systems leave health managers without the quality data they need.

The managers resort to modelling data using estimates and sometimes guesswork. When health challenges such as epidemics emerge, the population, including health workers, face serious challenges, sometimes with fatal consequences.

The donor community has been part of this problem. Rather than seeking and rewarding investment in platforms and infrastructure, they encourage one-off projects. They usually fund projects focused on addressing an immediate problem for a specific sector in a particular region or regions.

To build a national, functional and sustainable health information system, and considering its complexity, we can benefit from the approaches taken by businesses in the past 20 years of using technology as an integral support function, in what is referred to as the “enterprise architecture approach”.

Taking the health sector as an enterprise, the architecture approach would provide principles and practices on how to use technology to achieve quality services supported by accurate and up-to-date information and streamlined processes through a collaborative process.

To be successfully integrated into development, technology should be human-centered, contextually appropriate, collaborative, safe, and with a sustainable design as outlined in the international “Principles for Digital Development”.

This message was also the highlight of a just-ended global conference (ICT4D) in Nairobi.

The nearly 800 delegates from 70 countries and representing more than 330 organisations agreed that government commitment to creating an environment in which these technologies can flourish is fundamental.

This article was first published in the Daily Nation on May 22, 2016. 

See Sam Wambugu's presentation from the ICT4D conference.

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