Large gaps in health data systems for border populations in East and West Africa prevent residents from getting the quality and accessibility of health services they need. A Duke project is looking to change that.

Funded by the United States Agency for International Development in 2016, the Regional Action through Data project is a five-year collaborative project to improve data systems in sub-Saharan Africa. Partners include the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, Duke Innovations in Health Care and regional bodies such as the West African Health Organization and Intergovernmental Authority on Development.

“What we’re seeing is there are policies in some cases and lack of policies in other cases that are preventing the sharing of data," said Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. "So if a child receives a medication or a vaccine in one country and moves across the border to another, that information may not be readily available at all."

The project seeks to remedy current health data policy and the lack of available accurate data systems for populations in East and West Africa, which consistently move across borders due to forced migration and trade. 

“There are also challenges in terms of just having the data systems even if the policies allow it," Udayakumar said. "Very often, the data systems don’t exist, so either everybody’s capturing data in their own fragmented system that doesn’t talk to each other, or they’re not even capturing it electronically.”

Part of the project’s long-term goal is to work with health care organizations such as BroadReach Healthcare and Jembi Health Systems to develop a universal electronic health data platform with cross-border data collection. In addition, the project has been testing out working with credible regional bodies to influence data policies in African nations. 

“It was very collaborative and iterative, and so as we thought about what our role could be, it became clear that working with these partners who bring complementary skills, we could really add a lot of depth in understanding innovation and bringing in academic and policy perspective to the work,” he noted.

The biggest challenge, he said, is how to make any data collection solution last after the project runs out of funding and is discontinued. The team is hoping to avoid the common circumstance where the project leaves but the solution goes with it. 

To encourage sustainability, the team decided to take a more long-term approach rather than first attacking small problems. Udayakumar explained that they wanted to get a better, broader understanding to build consensus and get the right stakeholders engaged first in order to implement a long-lasting solution.

The team is currently in the midst of designing such data solutions, and they hope to deploy these solutions in addition to evaluation mechanisms to test what’s working in the next few months. 

“What we're working on now is to take all the policy analysis we initially did plus a deeper understanding of what the gaps are on the ground and see if we can actually develop solutions and test them over time,” Udayakumar said.

Ultimately, the team hopes to fulfill Duke Health’s overall mission of scaling health innovations and improving healthcare around the world. Udayakumar stressed that Duke views health care through a global lens, but it has an especially strong commitment to Africa. 

“There’s so much that Duke is doing in health in Africa,” Udayakumar said. “This is one example of a project, but one of many across parts of Duke where there’s a strong commitment to improving health, especially in Africa.”