Health Information is Health Aid: How Data Can Revolutionize Health Care

The following is a series of guest posts from participants in the November 8-10, 2010 mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C., organized by the Foundation for the National Institutes for Health (NIH) in partnership with the mHealth Alliance and NIH.

By Jody Ranck
Imagine a world in which public health decision-makers can reach informed decisions about where to distribute vaccines, or where to deploy critical healthcare resources, based on a complete understanding of the real needs generated by empirical realities, as opposed to out-of-date data.

U.S. health policy expert Donald Berwick once remarked that “information is care” in the context of the debate on how to improve health outcomes in the US.  In the developing world, this issue is even more pressing.

Poverty and poor health outcomes frequently can be tracked back to poor data quality and the blockages in critical information.  Up-to-date data is needed to inform suppliers of essential drugs in supply chains, slow responses to outbreaks, and spotlight inefficiencies in the allocation of human resources.

To improve maternal health globally, we need to understand more about what is causing poor health outcomes: both the real gaps in coverage, and those generated by lack of data.

Some examples will help illustrate the need for innovations that can address information flow blockages in the maternal health care continuum:

(1)   When we look at supply chains in developing countries we find that clinics in a given region typically have little information on stockouts, or excess supplies in neighboring clinics.  This may mean that mothers delivering babies may not have access to essential drugs such as oxytocin, which  can help strengthen labor contractions or control bleeding during a problematic delivery.

(2)   A lack of unique identifiers and vital registration systems that record births, deaths and other major life events, may mean that if a woman receives pre-natal care in a city, but then relocates to her home village to give birth, her records will appear in a country’s aggregate statistics as two unique patients.

(3)   In low and middle income countries, there is a critical shortage of health workers who can attend to women’s health issues.  This shortage is compounded by the challenge that, that frequently there are gaps between the information that the ministries of health use to influence education policies and resources, and the actual needs on the ground in rural health clinics.

So we can see very real effects of disruptions in data systems that can dramatically influence health outcomes.

To make a systemic impact that enables health systems to support healthier mothers and babies, we must understand the key gaps in health information flows throughout health systems.  This will enable health planners and health technologists to adopt innovations and policies to address failures, and help save lives.

The UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation, together with the mHealth Alliance, is commissioning research on health data flows.  This report, now available as a draft for comment,  is a first step in charting a potential pathway to new innovations for health system strengthening, and improved maternal health outcomes.

Through the identification of existing barriers to efficient data flows, we can map potential innovation spaces for technology developers and health planners.  If addressed in the near future, these innovations may accelerate the process of ehealth adoption, in turn strengthening health systems and leading to improved health outcomes where they are needed most.

At the mHealth Summit, I will lead an invitation-only roundtable discussion about health information flows.   This will incorporate comments from the Data Flows workspace in the HUB: Health UnBound community.  We hope you will register for HUB and join the conversation.

Jody Ranck, MA, DrPH, is a consultant to the mHealth Alliance, launched by the Rockefeller, United Nations and Vodafone Foundations. Join the mHealth Alliance group on Facebook, and follow discussions about the mHealth Summit on Twitter using #mHS10.