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Connecting in the time of COVID-19

By Jeff Bernson, Vice President, Technology, Analytics and Market Innovation, PATH and Rosemarie Muganda-Onyando, Regional Advocacy Director, Advocacy and Public Policy, PATH

Jul 2, 2020

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Photo: PATH/Trevor Snapp. BID Learning Network (BLN) members take part in a study visit. The BLN has taken on renewed importance providing virtual spaces for members to convene amid COVID-19.

This post first appeared on the PATH website.

Progress toward health equity relies on strong connections with governments, with communities, and with individuals. We cannot design new approaches without making these communities and individuals central to the design process. We cannot test new products without their feedback. And we cannot extend the reach of health services without their participation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we engage but has not changed our commitment to building with—and not for—communities. In a time of physical distancing, PATH is leaning on tools, both digital and analog, to keep these connections strong.

Here are three examples of our work in action:

Designing together, apart

Health workers can—and should—be integral to the design and innovation process. PATH’s Living Labs initiative envisions a world where all communities have the solutions they need to live healthy lives. Living Labs engages frontline health workers in rapid ideation and prototyping of innovations for increasing motivation and job satisfaction. Through a human-centered design approach—blending virtual brainstorming tools, a multitude of feedback mechanisms, and fearless innovation—Living Labs seeks to capture the immense power of end user creativity and critical thinking.

“The Living Labs model helps the global public health community shift from prescribing solutions based on a perception of people’s needs to co-creating solutions with health workers to actually meet their needs,” reflected Chris Obong’o, lead product manager for Living Labs.

As COVID-19 spread, our Living Labs team in Kenya turned its attention to small improvements that could benefit service delivery in a time of pandemic. Through a series of virtual focus groups, health workers shared how COVID-19 prevention methods impacted their daily work. For example, new guidance on handwashing from the World Health Organization (WHO) added significant time between patients. Living Labs staff brainstormed with health workers to identify production of hand sanitizer at the facility as a more accessible alternative to high market prices. Then, Living Labs helped address supply shortages by connecting health workers with WHO guidance on how to produce hand sanitizer at health facilities. Through remote prototyping and assisting with obtaining supplies, Living Labs has helped these health workers identify a new option for responding to the challenges brought on by additional prevention measures.

A virtual space for critical conversations

“As countries try to cut through the noise, the BID Learning Network is a space to translate global guidance and a growing evidence base on COVID-19 for their local realities,” shared Dr. Chilunga Puta, director of the BID Learning Network.

Since 2014, the BID Learning Network (BLN) has used webinars, digital forums, and study visits to connect health workers, Expanded Program on Immunization managers, and digital leaders from across countries to solve pressing data challenges and strengthen national immunization programs. The BLN has experimented with vignettes—short, hypothetical case studies—to encourage countries to problem solve together. It has also paired up countries at varying stages in their digital journey to foster deeper connections and sharing. With almost 500 members, the BLN has created more than a virtual space for sharing—it has created a trusted community of practitioners that lead conversations not only with each other, but also with global stakeholders.

As a member-driven forum, the BLN addresses the most pressing issues for its members, whether its resource mobilization strategies or pandemic response. Over the last few months, the BLN has seen a two-fold increase in the number of webinars and other virtual activities to allow members to share experiences and approaches related to COVID-19. From webinars on how to protect routine immunization services to open dialogues with global policymakers and a lively WhatsApp discussion, members of the BLN are leaning on each other and learning from each other.

Driving information to the last mile

Despite the rise in use of video conference software and social media during this pandemic, digital technologies are not the only way to share timely health information on COVID-19—and are often not the best way. Many communities do not have reliable internet connectivity or power, so limiting outreach to digital connections prevents them from accessing information in a timely manner and will only further entrench inequity. Instead, PATH deploys a mixture of high- and low-tech approaches to reach communities.

“Within semi-rural and rural [areas] like our county of Kakamega, knowledge within the community is often passed through gossip… [Misinformation thrives] mostly because the common channels that pass information aren’t fully compatible with the communities’ needs; for example language and interactive engagement styles,” said Edward Anyanda, coordinator, Kakamega County MNCH Alliance, a key partner to PATH in Kenya.

In countries like Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and India, PATH is looking beyond digital—using traditional media, trusted community leaders, and analog connections to reach rural communities. Printed materials like billboards, posters, and guidelines for health facilities reinforce messaging on radio and television using influential community champions. PATH engages with community leaders, who are important partners in elevating the voices of their people and helping respond to concerns from local communities. Even simple activities such as using vans equipped with loudspeakers can share information in remote communities on COVID-19, help dispel misinformation, and connect individuals with essential health services. It is by using all the tools at our disposal and working directly with ministries of health and community leaders that we can ensure trusted, evidence-based information reaches everyone.

COVID-19 has precipitated significant changes in the last six months. But one thing has not changed: PATH continues to serve as a trusted advisor to country leaders because of our human-centered approach. The pandemic has given us impetus to deploy more tools and think innovatively about how we maintain this role. We are already beginning to think about how distance learning, alternate and virtual reality technologies, and other co-creation tools that we haven’t even conceived of can deepen these connections and give us greater access to innovation and insights from these communities. Our efforts today are not just for the next six months—but reaffirming our commitment to communities six years from now.

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