Engaging Health Systems by Improving Access to Health Information   

August 6, 2015


Citizen Journalist: Sanskriti Sasikumar


Artwork by Charles Isabirye for Partnerships in Health Information. Retrieved from: http://www.phiinafrica.org/

Knowledge empowers individuals to make informed choices. However, in our search for the perfect solution to improve global health, we rarely speak about improving access to health information.  Global health actors often speak of tangible solutions like improving access to medicines, investing in functioning health systems, and providing vaccinations, while failing to recognise the importance of engaging an existing health system according to its own merit. Lurking in the background of these conversations is a movement to improve access to health information in countries that can otherwise not avail of it. Health librarians from around the world have been targeting existing health systems in an effort to improve healthcare in low- and middle-income nations. They have established systems of information delivery, whereby health professionals can access and evaluate evidence-based research towards the implementation of good health practices.  This involves training aspiring health librarians and enabling low-income countries to access research that they can otherwise not afford due to the high costs of subscribing to peer-reviewed journals.

While attending a reception at the House of Lords to commend the work of a UK-based organisation called Partnerships in Health Information (Phi), I realised that in debates about progressing global health initiatives, global health actors often forget about the health systems that are already in place. Despite knowing little of Phi prior to the event, it did not take long before I learned about the positive feedback that seemed to define its existence. Global health initiatives have usually taken a paternalistic approach to aid provision, and in doing so, have neglected to empower the partners that they work with. Organisations like Phi, which work to improve access to health information, consequently allow individuals to make informed health choices, as well as debunk life-threatening misconceptions and myths that persist in some communities.

Phi is the lead partner in a programme put together by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (Ifla). The federation is “designed to raise awareness of a range of health-related topics through public libraries”. Phi, in particular, collaborates with medical librarians and health information specialists in several countries in Africa to “access, organise, and disseminate” health information to health professionals and communities.

Since the organisation’s conception in 1992, it has funded several programmes through donations operated by a board of trustees. Phi establishes programmes that offer training in evidence-based practice to promote quality health information, and ensure sustainable improvements to national healthcare systems. Additionally, Phi offers scholarship programmes that allow African healthcare professionals and medical librarians to further their education in the UK. This approach to global health initiatives provides equitable opportunities by allowing countries to help themselves and further achieve healthcare goals.

While many communities are in praise of the promotion of health information, there has been little objective data to determine the effectiveness of these programmes in strengthening local health systems. Another drawback to research in this area is the lack of measurable outcomes in order to determine the impact of these projects. This system is not perfect, but at least there have been efforts towards recognising its limitations. Once global health actors begin to recognise the immense potential of improving access to health information, perhaps public conversations can help facilitate the progress of such research.

Healthcare in high-income nations has long relied on evidence-based practice to assess its performance and progress towards change. So, why do we often consider aid independently of the tools that we use to strengthen our own health systems? Improving the accessibility to health information is a simple concept that empowers communities and ensures self-reliance upon the cessation of aid. Until we are able to recognise that health information is a prerequisite for health promotion, we may continue to flounder in our efforts towards achieving global health equality.

Sanskriti Sasikumar is a medical student at the University of Limerick, interested in shifting perspectives about international aid towards sustainable development solutions.  She joins us as a regular contributor and citizen journalist with our Global Health Writes initiative.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @sanskritiskumar

Additional references:

  1. Cheeseborough, J., Godbolt, S., & Grant, M. (2015). Getting involved in international development activities: UK initiatives and hidden benefits. Health Info Libr J Health Information & Libraries Journal, 1-4.
  1. Ayre, S., Barbrook, J., Engel, C., Lacey, P., Phul, A., Stevenson, P., & Toft, S. (2014). Measuring the impact of information skills training: A survey of health libraries in England. Health Info Libr J Health Information & Libraries Journal, 50-60.
  1. Murphy, J. (n.d.). International perspectives and initiatives. Health Information and Libraries Journal Health Information & Libraries J, 62-68.


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