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Health Informatics in Developing Countries

It’s a universal fact – regardless of where on the planet we happen to live, we all get sick.

Similarly, health informatics is making an impact on healthcare around the globe, including in developing countries.

These countries are looking to health informatics to help improve healthcare for populations that have long gone without the same benefits and advantages as patients in the United States and other developed nations.

For organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, the need for better health information technology in developing countries has become a priority.

Joy Kamunyori, a health informatics advisor, and Sam Wambugu, a senior technical specialist, work to improve the ability of developing countries to gather, interpret and use data to improve health outcomes. Their work is done through the MEASURE Evaluation, a flagship program of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

According to Wambugu, the introduction of mobile health teams and the use of hand-held portable devices by health workers in the field is an example of how informatics continues to cull the data needed to make a difference. But it also falls to the developing countries to be knowledgeable about new applications and hardware advancements so they can maximize the benefit of the new technology.

Wambugu said in addition to challenges such as dealing with intermittent or nonexistent electricity, an electronic health framework needs to be designed to help govern and guide the adoption of informatics technology. Stakeholders and government officials collectively need to buy in to the creation of such a system, he said.

Instead of focusing on creating a uniform electronic medical record system, Wambugu said, different countries need to focus on creating and establishing standards to allow the different systems to exchange data, which is a vital component of informatics. Kamunyori said interoperability — the ability of systems to receive, recognize and present data — will eventually play a larger role in conversations.

For now, a bigger challenge facing developing nations is that many residents of rural areas and villages don’t understand technology or know how to use it.

Complicating the issue, she said, is that decision-makers who determine government priorities often aren’t familiar enough with technology to recognize its value. Frequently, those leaders aren’t used to receiving data in real time from the field and don’t know how to extract critical information for analysis once it is received.

“I feel like those are things we take for granted here in the U.S., like data mining and doing things with the data we get,” Kamunyori said. “But that is something that is still being learned in developing countries.”

Another factor impacting developing countries is a lack of skilled professionals who can work with health informatics.

According to a study published in the health policy journal HealthAffairs, the total number of skilled professionals needed is currently unknown. In comparison, some studies have shown the U.S. may need as many as 50,000 additional trained workers to realize the fulfillment of the federal HITECH Act, which is focused on creating a nationwide electronic health record system.

Internationally, training programs need to be implemented immediately to start that process. However, they also must be consistent with the culture, language and existing health system of each developing country.

 

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