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Humanizing data: Permanent Secretary of Tanzania discusses road map to better health

By Celina Kareiva, Communications Associate, BID Initiative

Apr 13, 2017

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Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki. At all levels of Tanzania’s health system, health workers either don’t have access to, or are not using the right data to make informed decisions. Tanzania wants to create a culture not just of data collection, but data use.

As the African proverb reads: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

When the Government of Tanzania first introduced its eHealth Strategy in 2013, it knew the success of the ambitious mandate depended on forging strong partnerships. The effort to adopt and apply information communication technology (ICT) throughout the health sector could transform the delivery of quality healthcare services, but not without careful investments and coordination across sectors and partners.

In 2016, PATH and the Government of Tanzania – with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – launched the Data Use Partnership (DUP) to assess and improve the use of data across the country’s health system. The resulting investment road map embodies that African saying.

Last Thursday, Dr. Mpoki Ulizubisya, Permanent Secretary of Tanzania’s Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly, and Children, joined Dr. Henry Mwanyika, Director of the BID Initiative in Tanzania, and Marty Gross, Senior Program Officer, HIV and Integrated Delivery for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to celebrate DUP’s learnings and the 17 strategic investment recommendations in the road map that resulted from DUP’s landscape and gap analysis.

Photo: PATH/Kelly Fallt. Last Thursday, Dr. Mpoki Ulizubisya, Permanent Secretary of Tanzania’s Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly, and Children, joined Dr. Henry Mwanyika, Director of the BID Initiative in Tanzania, and Marty Gross, Senior Program Officer, HIV and Integrated Delivery for the BMGF, to celebrate DUP’s learnings.

“Data sometimes defies gravity,” said Dr. Mpoki with a chuckle, “because it goes up, but doesn’t come down. How do we empower health workers so that they can use this data?”

There is a tendency, said Dr. Mpoki, when analyzing and making sense of data to lose sight of the people behind the numbers. Health workers, as a result, have little understanding of or use for the numbers they collect. But behind each antenatal care visit, missed vaccination, and facility delivery is a patient.

“Data is not just for policy and planning, but it is also for service delivery. Investing in terms of infrastructure is one thing, but more so our desire is to invest critically in human resources – [the] people that are going to look at numbers and make decisions based on those numbers,” explains Dr. Mpoki. “[Health workers] are used to collecting data, but there hasn’t been a need for them to critically look at the numbers…Our desire is to transcribe that information into people and realize that every digit that goes on record is a human. Whether they’re talking about malaria infection, tuberculosis, or maternal, reproductive, and child health, each of the numbers that are being reflected, [represents] a human being.”

Despite the recent surge of interest and investment in health data, existing information is often fragmented and piecemeal. You may encounter pockets of robust HIV statistics, or a clear picture of malaria prevalence in one community. But ask a simple question, such as how many health workers serve a particular health facility, and you won’t find the answer. The lack of coordination between those funding, developing, and using data systems, frequently maroons valuable information on “data islands,” undermining the ability to effectively access or share information, or to understand the full health context.

DUP is different, and like the BID Initiative, strives to create a culture not just of data collection, but data use.

“We’ve started to realize that we need to think about this more systemically and systematically,” said Marty of the field’s growing interest in “big data.”

By taking a comprehensive approach to data collection, Tanzania will see positive outcomes on every level of the health system. The benefits are both local and national, enabling more efficient and effective decision-making as well as a more timely response to spikes in disease.

“We’ve seen a transformation…people are becoming data users,” says Dr. Mpoki. “They [feel] empowered.”

In the next phase of this partnership, the Government of Tanzania will work with PATH and other stakeholders to implement the recommendations outlined in the investment road map. When the right health data is in the right hands, Tanzania will be able to overcome its health challenges, and patients will receive the high-quality care they need.

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