Health Information Systems in Developing Countries

Health Information Systems (HIS) are critical not only for assessing the health needs of populations, but also for planning, administration, and financial management of health interventions. The contributions of HIS are especially important in global health for low-income countries where inadequate health infrastructure, political uncertainty, and economic disruption require careful stewardship of valuable resources.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are the foundation of electronic health (eHealth). As the field is propelled forward by the expansion of open-sourced software, better accessibility to hardware, and the standardization and promotion of eHealth agendas, developing nations are becoming better equipped to tackle the unique health challenges of today.

Although a considerable volume of electronic health data exists worldwide, the data is often fragmented and unable to be used in health-related decision-making. National eHealth managers at health ministries often struggle with how to link discordant information systems and integrate primary care projects. Those projects are subsidized outside of the official health system and collect data in different ways, using different code sets and communication formats. One of the crucial ways this problem is being overcome is by the establishment of standards for the collection, management, and transformation of data for its eventual dissemination and use.

The World Bank, United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other international organizations have been advocating for framework for the development and sustainability of health information technology through the use of eHeath agendas in the developing world for more than a decade.

Interoperability, or the ability of different information technology systems and software applications to communicate, exchange, and interpret the data that has been shared, is vital to the success of eHealth systems and a critical component to eHealth agendas. The challenge for governments and stakeholders is advocating for the consistent use of standard content, coding, and communication formats that can be used regardless of technology.

The implementation of eHealth systems in resource-limited countries has also been aided by the expansion of open-sourced software. Two well-known examples are OpenMRS, a software platform that enables customized design of Electronic Health Records with no programming knowledge or experience, and PostgreSQL, an object-relational database system that is able to run all major operating systems and has a strong reputation for reliability and data integrity.

Information and communication technologies for development are supported by various initiatives of the United Nations and USAID. They are helping to provide low-cost solutions for hardware acquisitions that allow low-income countries to have better access to technology.

The potential of eHealth to enhance health systems and to improve the quality, safety, and access to care has long been recognized as an indispensable tool for supporting health system management and planning in resource-poor settings. As health care managers, policy makers, and program leaders strive to develop an information system that meets the unique health needs of every population, efforts should made to establish a clear framework for evaluating performance and ensuring sustainable use of ICT solutions in eHeath.