Tanzania’s new digital health road map offers a pioneering example of “putting national government in the driver’s seat” and of systems based approaches to e-health, experts say.
Tanzanian officials unveiled the investment road map, which outlines a range of digital health interventions for using data to improve health services and outcomes, during the Global Digital Health Forum 2016, held in Virginia. The plan is one component of an 18-month project implemented by international NGO PATH with $2 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Digital health is an umbrella term which refers to innovations that use smart phones, social networks and internet applications to improve health care systems in ways ranging from improving access to services for people living in remote areas to tracking medicine stocks to avoid shortages.
The Tanzanian road map is significant, according to digital health experts, because it is unusual to see such a broad, systemwide digital health approach and one which is being government-led.
The road map calls for an overall investment of approximately $74 million and aims to deliver improvements across five main areas — enhancing health service delivery, strengthening health systems performance, optimizing resource allocation, improving data supply and demand, and connecting and harmonizing data systems.
The Gates Foundation has been so “blown away” by the road map and the government’s leadership on the project that it is negotiating an additional five-year investment of up to $15 million to support components of the proposal, according to Marty Gross, senior program officer.
“Fundamentally it’s a different way of doing business because it’s putting national government in the driver’s seat and asking them to tell us what to invest in and how to support their own capacities and systems. We talk a lot about it but I don’t think there have been a lot of great examples of actually achieving that,” he said.
He also praised the government for getting buy-in from multiple different, often “fragmented” agencies to produce a “strong technical proposal but which has mandate and organization to take it forward.”
Tanzanian government officials say the road map will transform the health system.
“We see the investment road map as a critical component of improving our health system in Tanzania by having better data which will result in better outcomes for Tanzanians,” said Peter Serukamba, chairman of the social services parliamentary committee in the Tanzanian government.
The road map includes a range of investment recommendations designed to improve the use of data to inform planning, delivery, and performance management within the system, identify and adopt best practices in data use, systems architecture, and governance, and lead to increased investment commitment and coordination by donors and partners, according to Breese Arenth, project lead at PATH,
“Better health data systems and data use will make Tanzania’s vision a reality by supporting everyone — from government officials to health workers to patients — in making more informed decisions that improve the health of all Tanzanians,” Arenth said.
The road map also heralds a new, more “sophisticated” approach to digital health which takes a “bigger picture systems perspective,” according to James BonTempo, director of ICT and innovation at Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, and who also helped organize the forum.
“We are now seeing country ownership and strategic approaches being taken at a national level. The field is moving away from a sprinkling of little things happening across a country to thinking holistically about a system and all of its parts and how they work together,” BonTempo said.
Tanzania is not the first country to embrace a national digital health strategy, BonTempo said. He pointed to Rwanda and Nigeria as two other countries taking a similar leadership role.
Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.
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