Health IT takes hold around the world

We put the spotlight on four health IT initiatives that have lessons to share
By Zack McCartney
09:32 AM
global health IT initiatives

Every country, every government, every population is a participant in a global trial and error. Each one faces different circumstances and, therefore, approaches healthcare differently.  But, as world health leaders see it, everyone can learn from others' struggles and successes to improve and simplify their respective strategies. Health information technology is at the core.

Finding the global lessons from local healthcare strategies facilitates progress toward Universal Health Coverage, or UHC, a public health concept championed notably by the World Health Organization and it’s director, Margaret Chan. According to Najeeb Al-Shorbaji, director of knowledge, management, and sharing at the WHO, in a statement released to Healthcare IT News, WHO defines UHC as “all people receiving quality health services that meet their needs without exposing them to financial hardship in paying for them.”  

A video on the WHO’s website, “The many paths to universal health coverage,” documents the various  efforts in Thailand, Rwanda, Oman, China, Mexico, and Turkey to achieve this lofty goal. As the video notes, “Their experience can provide lessons to countries just beginning the journey” toward UHC. This means, ideally, more time and money spent repeating past successes and avoiding past errors – and also innovating.

In December 2012, the UN passed a resolution on UHC that urges member states to develop health systems capable of providing high-quality care while avoiding direct payments at the point of delivery.

Healthcare IT plays a central role in modern healthcare strategies.

As a relatively new component of healthcare, there is still much to learn about how best to integrate digital health systems. Keeping an eye out for successes and innovations -- learning opportunities around the world -- should be a priority for all countries, world health leaders say.

“Similar to UHC, an eHealth strategy is unique to the situation in the country,” said Al-Shorbaji, “But there are still common elements, methodologies and best practices that can help countries to avoid mistakes, for example, investing large amounts of money without a proper plan, roadmap or a strategy – this leads to fragmentation, wasting resources, disconnection with people and ‘solutions looking for problems,’”

Al-Shorbaji detailed several points on how information and communications technology is important to universal healthcare along with the challenges WHO has encountered when working with member states to integrate newer technologies into their healthcare systems. Simply put, “Data collection for public health surveillance or for personal use is a prerequisite for successful health intervention. Absence of timely and quality health data simply means hasty decision-making, non-evidence based planning, low and delayed care delivery, opinion driven management and so on.”

If UHC means targeting everyone with high-quality, affordable services, healthcare systems need to be able to record data on all of its patients, as in a national electronic health record that can allow physicians and patients to share data. Practitioners need to monitor quality of care. The health needs of the population need to be defined and monitored.  

The five main challenges for developing an IT infrastructure, says Al-Shorbaji, are issues of standardization and interoperability, lack of national planning, lack of solid evidence, sustainability (as insufficient funding has limited the success of many eHealth projects), and lack of human resources. ICT, therefore, is a central component to any UHC strategy, as there needs to be a system in place that can collect and share data in the healthcare system. Finding the best route to a meaningful HIT system, though, is still being worked out around the world.    

Here are glimpses at several healthcare IT projects around the world. Some have already proved successful.  Others are in the works, but are exciting prospects for the use of information technology in healthcare.

The officials we talked with say the projects have the potential to contribute to the world’s growing body of knowledge on how the world can best use health IT to provide more comprehensive, more accessible healthcare.

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