Will more data lead to better public health programs?

Citizens line up at the Mahila Chikitsalaya Women's Hospital in Jaipur, India to get access to health care. How can data drive public health programs to run more efficiently and effectively? Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

There have been significant advances and developments in global health over the past decade.

According to the World Health Organization, there are now more children living longer lives than there were 20 years ago, maternal deaths have been decreasing steadily, and 1 million fewer people contracted HIV in 2013 than in 2001.

Even so many people, especially in low-income nations, still die from curable and preventable diseases, including diarrhea and road injuries — which WHO projects would be some of the leading causes of death in the next 15 years. Many more are dying without even receiving medical attention or knowing what caused their deaths.

How then can this problem be addressed?

“Having health data is important because … we’re talking about accountability,” Alex Ross, director at WHO’s Kobe Center for Urban Health, said during this week’s Global Forum on Research and Innovation for Health in Manila, which Devex attended. “It provides inclusiveness, engagement [and innovation].”

Collecting the data helps “make the necessary argument” to spur action particularly on issues about health and equity, which historically have been difficult to address due to interlinked issues, such as urbanization and political complexities.

In a study that aims to provide “political leaders and health officials with a big picture view of public health,” over 1,000 researchers make the case for why data needs to guide public health programs, if they are to run efficiently and effectively.

“To align health systems with the populations they serve, policymakers first need to understand the true nature of their country’s health challenges — and how those challenges are shifting over time,” reads a description of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease study.

This is echoed by Ross, who said that some of the political and policy elements that come into play to make big data actionable is seen in the urban context or “how the elected officials and the health systems understand what’s happening in the communities, and to transfer that knowledge into action and certain types of intervention.”

But other aspects also need to be considered throughout the process of collecting data for health programs.

Jeffrey Williams, chairman of the Health Care Information Management Association of the Philippines, said some of the technological advances in the health care industry include a tablet with a microchip that patients can ingest to store information about their health status.

While this may be a great tool to collect data and make health programs better, Anthony Capon of the International Institute for Global Health of the United Nations University said this might raise some ethical concerns. There are logistical and financial considerations as well, especially when rolled out to low-income communities.

Data accuracy is another concern, as is finding the data sets that may actually be translated into practical applications. Many organizations, governments and institutions have for instance rolled out databases and online information hubs to make data and information available, but to sift through them and make them actionable isn’t always easy.

“You have to first start to get data, get insight from that data, start to produce analytics on that data,” Farouk Meralli, chief of Singapore-based health tech firm mClinica, said. “But most importantly is to be able to take action from that data and that’s really the impact in terms of public health.”

As concluded by Martin Sepulveda, IBM fellow and vice president for Health Systems and Policy Research, “not all data are created equal and it doesn’t mean that when data is big, it is better.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.