Guest contributor Laura Anderson is an editor at PATH.
PATH’s work to improve health for women and children worldwide takes us to some challenging places. This includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where a lack of infrastructure, security, and well-functioning health systems adds complexity to even the most powerful efforts.
So when a digital health technology comes along that has the strength, versatility, and functional chops to break through barriers, it does a lot more than make our jobs easier—it saves lives.
A data management challenge
Here’s how. In 2012, PATH was leading a consortium of partners to intercept the devastating trajectory of HIV and AIDS in the DRC. With the help of more than a hundred local groups, the Integrated HIV/AIDS Project (ProVIC) was improving care and services, giving communities new tools to combat disease, and strengthening the country’s health systems.
Yet a lack of data on these efforts was quickly growing from a weak link to a critical gap. How many patients were being treated? Had they returned to clinics for lifesaving follow-up care? Were pregnant women with HIV giving birth in facilities equipped to lower their babies’ risk of infection—and if not, what was keeping them away? Facing urgent need, our partners made do with the data they could gather, but it wasn’t always enough.
Strength in a flexible platform
A focused effort to expand monitoring and evaluation, combined with a customizable digital platform called Salesforce.com, cut through the fog. With support from consultants and the project’s funder, the US Agency for International Development, we used the platform to develop a software application that met the unique needs of the project and rolled it out to partners across the DRC.
Today, about 200 health care workers from ProVIC-supported sites around the country—including many who had never used a computer or a database before—have learned to use the system. These teams are gathering and using hundreds of data points, including individual records for nearly 450,000 beneficiaries. Because Salesforce.com stores information online (in the “cloud”), any user with a laptop or smartphone and an Internet connection can see, add to, and share data in real time. And simple reporting tools allow them to select and view exactly the data they need.
This new information is giving us the big picture we need to plan well and increase our impact. It also tells us that we’re helping to turn the tide on HIV in the DRC. Since 2009, ProVIC has helped nearly 1.6 million people access HIV prevention information and interventions, supported 556,000 in receiving HIV counseling and testing, and trained more than 4,100 community volunteers and health workers.
Better data is just the beginning. In the future, digital health technologies promise to help us unravel complexity and save lives by simplifying data collection, increasing efficiency, and leaping the physical distances that separate communities from the knowledge and resources they need to thrive.