ICT for Health: It's All the Rage

image of bangladeshi girls with mobile phones
September 22, 2014

Everyone seems to be talking about “mobile health”, or mHealth, and exalting the power of ICT for health. Somehow, it seems that if we are not incorporating ICT in our health programs today, we have missed the train to successful health outcomes. So, after a three-year wait for USAID’s decision, I find myself as the manager of a newly-won TASC4-ICT for Health umbrella contract, or prequalification, for USAID. EnCompass is the prime contractor, and leads a partnership of superstar organizations that represent ICT excellence. In this introductory post, let me convey the wisdom of the team: ICT indeed holds incredible potential for improving health outcomes; and, to unleash that potential, it requires a systematic requirements analysis, participatory processes that engage users of ICT, and an ability to facilitate organizational changes needed to harness the potential of ICT for cost-effective services and coverage.

ICT advocates urge us to let technology work for us, citing many benefits:

  • Supervisors can track health workers through GPS on their mobile phones, and know whether they made the community visits they promised
  • Community health workers can send in surveillance reports through mobile phones, and those reports can be automatically saved to a database, aggregated, and sent up to higher levels of the system for action
  • Hospitals can store medical records on the cloud
  • Clinics in urban areas or refugee camps can identify patients by their thumbprint
  • We can continually send messages to individuals to remind them to adopt healthier habits.

Yet, even as we drink the ICT elixir, let’s reflect on what is possible through ICT and how exactly we can make ICT work best to serve health. Where should we begin to integrate ICT in our health portfolio? Which ICT innovations are appropriate for a particular health system? What are the prerequisites for each ICT innovation to work? How do we go about preparing for and deploying each innovation?

My colleague Elisa Knebel and I addressed these questions in a 2013 issue of ASTD’s The Public Manager that focused on Knowledge Management. The article, entitled, “Using Knowledge Management to Focus on the Common Good,” concludes:

“KM is both a solution and intervention. The technology solution is only part of the puzzle—frequently, in fact, the smaller part; the other part is managing the changes in work processes required to accompany the implementation of that new technology.”

In this article we write about the use of technology for learning and support of compliance with standards for TREAT TB, USAID’s global research program in TB research implemented by The Union North America. We developed an asynchronous e-learning program, entitled USAID Policy Uptake in Tuberculosis Research, aimed at getting researchers to incorporate two types of analyses in their design of research: Impact Assessment and Policy Transfer Analysis. The Impact Assessment Framework asks researchers to consider who gains from the interventions that research aims to improve; Policy Transfer Analysis asks researchers to integrate appropriate engagement of decision makers who might influence the adoption of useful research outcomes to improve health policies and practice. These are complex concepts, new to many researchers, and ICT offers a way to present them in a clearer, more compelling way. The resulting free, Internet-based and downloadable program enabled researchers working with TREAT TB to grasp the policy implications of research more quickly and more accurately than if they had to read a lengthy publication.

The e-learning program was designed with simplicity that conveyed greater credibility to the development research community we tested. Interestingly, prior to our engagement, the TREAT TB team had been skeptical of the utility and relevance of technology in their TB research program, as they had seen it misused and wasting significant resources. They became more open to it when they saw that they could tailor it to serve TB researchers' needs, and not the other way around.

The lesson from this and other experiences is that introducing technology into a system needs to be handled with care. As we launch our TASC4-ICT for Health project, we plan to share some of our insights for how to combine the right health expertise with the right technology, and how to manage the transition to successful integration of ICT for improved health outcomes. We invite you to join us as we continue learning together. I look forward to our conversation!

Photo: © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank (via Creative Commons)

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About the Author

As co-founder of EnCompass, Tessie Tzavaras Catsambas has led the development of responsible...

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