Health care’s next revolution: digitized data to transform lives

February 28, 2017 by Skye Gilbert Yoden

In a world with many tough problems, getting good data is a solvable first step.

A health care worker uses a tablet to record medical data.

A health care worker uses a tablet to record medical data. Photo: PATH.

The call for better global health data has been steadily getting louder. In a recent article, Melinda Gates noted that while the quality and use of these data are improving, significant work remains.

Gates cited examples in malaria and family planning where data allowed the global health community to begin solving some of the most intractable global health challenges today. At PATH, we believe that data visibility is often the first step toward solving systemic problems.

In two facilities in Karatu District, Tanzania, where the BID Initiative has supported the government of Tanzania in deploying an electronic immunization record, nurses in charge are using the electronic register to pull a list of children overdue for vaccines. The digital system turned a multi-hour process into a ten-second query, increasing the health worker’s time and motivation to follow up and notify the parents that their child should come in for a lifesaving immunization.

Watch BID Initiative’s video to see how they’re making data more accessible in health facilities in Tanzania. Video: PATH.

Digitized data can spark the next revolution in global health, but. . .

Digital data doesn’t just empower health workers at the front line. As Gates noted in her speech, large sets of data allow public health professionals to identify previously unknown barriers to care and more effectively allocate resources to solve for them. Digitization enables faster analysis, allowing people to generate new insights more quickly. However, digitizing data is insufficient on its own to prompt actual changes in health outcomes.

The fire will ignite when people actually use the data

Gates noted that “the best science can sit on the shelf and go absolutely nowhere.” This is also true for data. Revolutions happen when people use data to remove barriers to health care, whether it’s a young mother in Bangladesh or the head of the World Health Organization. The gap between not knowing and knowing is large; the gap between knowing and doing is often larger. As data improves, the opportunities to use that information increases, and it becomes even more important to consider how to systematically support the use of data for decision-making and informed action.

“The next health revolution will belong to the communities that are able to tap into this data and use it to transform their lives.”
Nurses talk to mothers holding their infant children.

Nurses talk to mothers holding their infant children during a vaccination day in the pediatric ward. Photo: PATH/Will Boase.

Global health is in a state of evolution. As noncommunicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and cancer continue to rise, people are looking for holistic solutions to their health, and policymakers are trying to understand the nudges that can strengthen and reinforce healthy practices. As global health data also evolve in quality and comprehensiveness, they will yield important new insights about drivers of community health, as well as highly personalized approaches to well-being. The next health revolution will belong to the communities that are able to tap into this data and use it to transform their lives.