Meeting the challenge of health information access with open online collaboration

Guest blog by Sophie Beauvais, Communications & Web Content Manager, Global Health Delivery Project and Anat Rosenthal, research fellow, Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School. Figure by Sophie Beauvais.

Limited access to up-to-date professional information is a multi-faceted challenge for health providers in resource-poor settings, hindering their ability to learn about the latest advances, participate in research, and discuss cases with peers. In addition, providing care and running health services in such settings call for the adaptation of protocols and guidelines, requiring collaboration and input from various experts.

New approaches using Information and Communication Technology, from online collaborative software solutions to social networking websites, have emerged over the past decades to address these issues. Some of these tools require organizations to pay for users’ licenses, but many are freely available to web-savvy users and organizations who wish to improve collaboration within existing teams and are able to maintain such platforms.

Other initiatives like the World Health Organization’s HINARI Access to Research Initiative, or the open-access publishing movement as exemplified by the Public Library of Science, have focused on “opening the gate” to professional publications. And the addition of social networking features such as “comments” to websites is coming close to providing a place for providers to “say what they want” as explained by Godlee et al. in the Lancet.

Envisioned as a non-partisan and interdisciplinary platform by the founders of the Global Health Delivery Project, GHDonline was released in June 2008 to offer providers with online “communities of practice” where they could exchange advice and knowledge as needed across organizations.

Global health providers can join one or several communities, each focusing on specific challenges and guided by moderators who are experts in their field. In addition to being able to share information resources from links to files, members can start and contribute to discussions via email or online. Email integration makes it easy for busy practitioners to exchange information, and because discussions are open, archived, and searchable in GHDonline communities, members can direct colleagues to the website when looking for advice on a topic already addressed in one discussion. To do so, they can also use an integrated search engine that indexes all GHDonline content, as well as content from key websites and more than a hundred news feeds chosen from a wide range of organizations that make the news in global health. In other words, there is no need to “re-create the wheel” or sift through millions of page results if lessons learned on the ground are openly exchanged by global health implementers and can be found in a dedicated search engine.

GHDonline communities are already proving very useful to thousands of professionals. For example, in the Health IT community, members debate the efficiency of new technologies such as Short Message Service applications for clinical field work or for supply chain management, but also ask for guidance on Internet-based systems to report malaria cases in Ethiopia. In the Tuberculosis Infection Control community, members exchange recommendations on outdoor sputum induction in sub-Saharan Africa and for the transportation of suspected MDR-TB patients, or ask how much better is respirator fit testing compared with fit checking. In other communities, they inquire about monitoring technologies for DOTS treatment, HIV Sentinel Surveillance Reports for specific countries, and impact of metabolic complications on antiretroviral adherence.

By participating, GHDonline members are in effect contributing to the democratization of knowledge. Furthermore, they’re also bonding around shared goals and the mission to improve the delivery of health care services and patients’ health. Consequently, initiatives like GHDonline are helpful in promoting access to up-to-date professional information and collaboration often challenging implementers working in resource-limited settings.

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