My Takeaway from AeHIN: The Critical Interoperability Layer is People

Last week in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, over 300 representatives from South and Southeast Asia Ministries of Health and global digital health experts gathered for the fifth general meeting of the Asian eHealth Information Network (AeHIN), a group that fosters peer-to-peer learning and networking with the goal of strengthening health systems through information and communication technology (ICTs).

AeHIN Health IT Collaboration Workshops 2017

Representatives from countries such as Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Bhutan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and the Maldives shared their successes and failures in developing and implementing national health ICT frameworks. Over the span of five days, it became clear that the fundamental challenge for a functioning health information system is not the technology, but rather, the people – the human interoperability layer.

Interoperability is complex and requires integration to piece together disparate components of a health information system. On one end, there is a series of registries at the client, clinic and facility level that feed information to record systems. On the other end, there are applications to facilitate decision-making and monitoring. In between are the people. In order to ensure information is correctly and quickly shared, people across sectors must work together and have aligned priorities that put the health system, as a whole, first. Without cohesive communication and collaboration, the system won’t function.

To discuss how to make human interoperability more effective and efficient, AeHIN brought together a network of experts from the public and private sectors to share their successes and challenges when addressing interoperability in country. Through community, strong leadership and trust, AeHIN helps practitioners turn human interoperability into a health information system’s greatest asset, instead of a barrier.

1) Community: Since 2007, AeHIN has fostered a community of ministry of health representatives and digital technology experts with a core aim of “increase[d] peer assistance and knowledge exchange and sharing.” The graveyard of communities of practice in the technology for development space is littered with those that built it, but no one came. AeHIN members are actively engaged because their community provides value through a thoughtful combination of capacity building, peer learning, and networking, with active coordination by a Secretariat body.

“Health does not belong to the Ministry of Health alone. It belongs to everyone. Everyone here is part of leadership.”

Dr Fazilah Shaik Allaudin, Ministry of Health, Malaysia

2) Leadership: The model for international development has evolved dramatically over the past decades; AeHIN is the personification of this shift from donor-driven decision-making to country ownership and leadership. Myanmar Minister of Health, Dr. Myint Htwe, emphasized that countries must own and maximize the potential of digital health as part of the healthcare delivery system. The Broadband Commission also highlights this trend in its new report, “Digital Health: A call for government leadership and cooperation between ICT and health.” As many countries move to the complex task of implementing national digital health strategies, effective leadership and cooperation approaches are needed to coordinate the often fragmented ecosystem of digital health solutions and programs.

3) Trust: A theme that rang true throughout AeHIN was “it is not just about coordinating with others but about collaborating.” As a gathering of old and new friends, AeHIN provided an opportunity for participants to freely talk about individual case studies, highlighting success and failures. The humor and affable nature of the participants and conversations quickly built trust so the conference could focus on asking questions and learning from peers and global experts. In the end, cooperation and open conversations like those taking place at AeHIN will make the health information systems better for all.

Carolyn Florey is the director of collective impact at the Digital Impact Alliance. In this position, she works to make digital development programs more effective, impactful and sustainable and helps coalesce the development community around scaling and increasing the impact and cost effectiveness of digital development investments. Prior to joining DIAL, Carolyn was the mHealth Senior Manager at the United Nations Foundation.