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Without the User, There Is No System: Harnessing Technology through the eHealth Workforce

When we talk about building strong health systems and the health workers needed to run these systems, we often think about doctors or nurses or community health workers. Just as crucial to health systems are robust health information systems that help manage and make accessible information about patients, clinics, budgets, payroll, and all the other details that make a health care system work. When it comes to building a strong electronic health (eHealth) information system, the user is, arguably, the most important part.  

An eHealth workforce requires system administrators, programmers, and analysts who sustain and extend a country’s health information systems and eHealth technologies. Many countries in the developing world have growing but weak information and communication systems, which make building the eHealth infrastructure system an ongoing challenge. Dr. Girma Azene of Tulane University’s Technical Assistance Project in Ethiopia said recently at a conference, “Nobody feels the pain of lack of information like I do, because I was the planning person with the Federal Ministry of Health, and it was the greatest problem we had for the last ten years.”

When it comes to building stronger, more effective health workforces and health information systems, eHealth technologies have tremendous potential. I want to share four recommendations aimed at building the kind of eHealth systems we need to support strong health systems.

1. Develop national eHealth workforce strategies and policies. Country ownership is essential for success and must include stakeholders from the health and other government ministries, the educational sector, private sector, as well as civil society organizations.

2. Apply broader health workforce strategies to the eHealth workforce. In many ways the eHealth workforce is similar to the broader health workforce, and policy discussions will need to include capacity building, retention, management, and financing issues.

3. Foster a community of eHealth innovation. Participants advocated for supporting eHealth “fellows” at existing innovation centers and holding national and regional unconferences to bring together health leaders, clinicians, and technologists.

4. Develop and disseminate specific tools, guidance, and best practices. These included: policy templates, country models with example strategies and interventions, gap analysis tools, training content, and support for communities of innovation.

These recommendations came out of the Second Global Forum on Human Resources for Health held last month. Efforts towards building a strong health workforce and information technologies reinforce two of the six building blocks identified by the World Health Organization as critical to health systems. Harnessing this potential is the aim and the charge of the eHealth team of the IntraHealth-led CapacityPlus project.

We’ve identified four areas of eHealth that are critical to a successful health system:

  • Human resources information system—The systems that provide a country’s sector leaders with essential information on the health workforce
  • eHealth workforce—The system administrators, programmers, and analysts who sustain and extend a country health information systems and eHealth technologies
  • eHealth literacy—The basic technology skills every health worker must have to be an effective user of eHealth technologies and health information
  • eLearning—The use of information technologies to deliver essential knowledge when and where it’s needed.

We will soon be releasing a report that offers a more in-depth analysis of other recommendations on eHealth and health information systems, which we will post to the eHealth capacity-building community of practice on the mHealth Alliance’s HUB. Join the community, and let’s continue discussing this increasingly important area of global health.