Arthy Santhakumar: Accelerating health equity through equitable access to health information

arthy-santhakumarAs we await consensus on the new sustainable development goals (SDGs), we are reminded of what united the international community in the years approaching the millennium—the need to reduce inequality globally. Universal health coverage (UHC) – as put forward by the World Health Organization—was identified as “the single most powerful concept that public health has to offer, and considered to be the unifying vision for the health goal in the SDGs.”

At a recent event hosted by WHO, entitled “Equitable access to health information—at the heart of UHC,” we deliberated on how to make the ambitious target a reality. A central component, aside from health financing, is a healthcare system. In its simplest form, this consists of all organisations, the services provided, and people whose primary interest is to restore or maintain health. The “people” component is key. What constitutes a well performing health workforce? One that is able to work in a responsive, fair, and efficient manner to achieve the best health outcomes possible, given the available resources and circumstances. Certainly. But of all the basic needs of a healthcare worker, the need for reliable, appropriate healthcare information and knowledge is fundamental.

The current global healthcare knowledge system represents the totality of processes and structures that underlie the production, exchange, availability, and use of relevant, reliable healthcare information. It is therefore dependent on the cooperation of a wider range of professionals, including citizens, healthcare providers, policy makers, researchers, and information professionals. That said, we find increasingly that this system is not working in many parts of the world, because it is poorly understood, unmanaged, fragmented, and drastically underresourced. In practice, the evidence highlights low awareness of available resources, a lack of relevant available information (that is, not meeting end users’ needs in terms of scope, style, format, or language), and limited time and incentives to use existing information. This failure has led to a global crisis, where tens of thousands of women, children, and men die needlessly for want of simple, low cost interventions that are often locally available. In this age of “big data,” we are consistently confronted by huge volumes of structured and unstructured data, so large they become difficult to process. It is increasingly important to understand the context and environment into which information is released, to ensure that it is not only accessible, but that it is appropriate to the needs to the end users. The reality of this information crisis has significant potential to reverse many of the progress made towards the millennium development goals (MDGs).

Healthcare Information For All (HIFA) is a global network and one such initiative, tackling this crisis through constructive collaboration and communication. With a current membership of more than 13 000 individuals from a wide range of disciplines, and supported by 2500 organisations (of which the BMA is one), HIFA spans 170 countries. United behind a shared vision where “every person and every health worker will have access to the healthcare information they need to protect their own health and the health of those for whom they are responsible,” the network provides a virtual platform where members share expertise and experiential knowledge to enable better understanding of the health information needs of healthcare provides around the world—and the development of solutions for meeting them. HIFA is a powerful social and health professional movement to capture, in particular, experiential knowledge, in addition to the knowledge already available.

Meeting the needs of healthcare providers is central to the realisation of universal health coverage. Ensuring that other stakeholders take full account of healthcare information needs as a driver for ethical behaviour change greatly increases the potential for UHC to move from aspiration to reality.

  • This blog was edited from a longer article first published by the World Health Organization.

Arthy Santhakumar is a senior research officer in the international division of the BMA. Her current focus is global health and international development, and she leads on the BMA’s Medical Fair and Ethical Trade campaign.

Competing interests: None declared.