Knowledge management and information technology are powerful tools for decision–making and for strengthening health systems. During 2006–2010, the Americas made significant progress in the development and use of new health technologies, as well as in information and resource management. The Virtual Health Library (VHL) is a prime example: available in 30 of the Region's countries, the VHL serves as a clearinghouse for technical and scientific information in the countries' health research, education, promotion, and care delivery systems. The Region also advanced in the development of national research policies and the consolidation of virtual collaboration as a cost–effective and time–saving tool.
But, despite its recent achievements in this area, the Region has yet to overcome weaknesses that undermine technology and knowledge processes, such as a lack of global education strategies and limited investment in research, which accounts for less than 2% of the gross domestic product (GDP). As the Commission on Health Research for Development noted in 1990, ideally at least 2% of the health budget should be devoted to research. This goal was reaffirmed at the Ministerial Summit on Health Research (Mexico 2004) and at the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health (Bamako 2008), and more recently in PAHO's Policy on Research for Health, which was approved by the Member States in 2009.
The most important challenges for the Americas in the coming years include tackling and solving these problems, as well as using science appropriately in policy–making and health services delivery; boosting relevant, high quality scientific production; participating more fully in information networks; and consolidating the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) in health, including social networks, telemedicine, mHealth, and eLearning.
Governance1Governance Is Defined As "the Collective Action Processes That Organize Interactions Among Stakeholders, Process Dynamics, and The Rules Of The Game (informal and Formal) By Which A Society Determines Its Behaviors and Makes and Carries Out Its Decisions" (1).
Equitable access to information, knowledge, and scientific evidence is a cross–cutting issue that helps to strengthen leadership, governance, and the evidence base for health systems in Latin American and Caribbean countries.
NATIONAL INFORMATION SYSTEMS
National information systems in health sciences include libraries, documentation and information centers, educational institutions, research centers, and governmental and nongovernmental agencies working in the health sector.
Recognizing that health policies should be evidence–based, the Region's countries have, to varying degrees, developed the infrastructure, processes, and capabilities they require to stay current on scientific evidence and use it in their decision–making processes and in the establishment of lines of action for health (2).
Inherently complex, health systems coalesce their subsystems' interactions with one another and their relations with external systems. Access to information and scientific evidence is a critical component of health research systems. It is, therefore, impossible to conceive of improving health and health research systems without having information systems that can capture, process, and disseminate new knowledge-and the techniques and procedures derived them-and place them at the service of health. The VHL is one of the more tangible expressions of the role of information and knowledge (3).
The VHL's network of institutions has expanded steadily over the past five years, growing from 70 portals in 2006 to 128 certified portals distributed among 30 countries of the Region. These 128 national or regional websites compile, organize, disseminate, and facilitate access to scientific and technical health information on specific topics or categories for national health research, education, promotion, and care delivery systems. Other regions of the world have adopted this model, including Spain in Europe, and Portuguese–speaking countries of Africa, which are aligned with the World Health Organization's ePORTUGUESe Network. The Region's ministries of health (in Brazil and Peru, for example) also use the VHL to disseminate their institutional bibliographic production. The challenge remains to more directly link research findings to actions, in an effort to bridge the so–called know–do gap and establish a more effective relationship that translates knowledge into solutions to health problems (4, 5, 6).
STRENGTHENING RESEARCH GOVERNANCE IN HEALTH
During 2006–2010, the Region consolidated and enhanced national health research systems. Most countries successfully developed health agendas and policies on research for health, and also began to align their health research priorities, policies, and strategies with the 2009 regional Policy on Research for Health2The Member States of the Pan American Health Organization adopted the "Policy for Research on Health" during their 49th meeting of the Directing Council, held in September 2009. (7). Figure 6.1 shows important milestones in the path towards the consolidation of policies on research for health in the countries of the Americas.
As part of their effort to consolidate their research for health efforts, the countries of the Americas participated in various initiatives and venues. For example, they took part in the 2004 Ministerial Summit on Research for Health Research, held in Mexico, and in a meeting jointly organized by the Council for Health Research for Development (COHRED) and the Pan American health Organization in Antigua, Guatemala, in 2006. It was at this latter gathering that the possibility of having a Latin American Conference on Research and Innovation for Health was first proposed. The countries took part in the first such conference, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2008. Some of the Region's countries also attended the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health held in Bamako, Mali, that same year. Finally, the countries participated in consultations leading up to WHO's 2010 Research for Health Strategy. Their involvement in these milestones has allowed the countries of the Americas to better identify opportunities for strengthening their national health research systems and has given them a better understanding of how to develop their policies, priorities, and capacities in health research.
If the Region's countries are to benefit fully from their capacity to produce and use research, they must have robust research governance policies in place. For example, they must have mechanisms that enable them to bridge the gap between conducting research for health and translating its results into health policies. To that end, several countries already have established evidence–based policy platforms. By strengthening a country's ability to translate research results into policies, such platforms enrich the health research system and, in turn, enhance the national health system itself. Knowledge translation processes stimulate adequate scaling up and implementation of health care interventions in a manner that addresses equity, safety, and effectiveness, among other issues. Research for health is relevant to every component of the health system; the health research system provides strategic inputs and supports a health system with tools that address knowledge gaps and build on research findings to improve people's lives. Knowledge translation not only bridges health care (policy and delivery) with research but becomes a catalyst for the strengthening of health research systems that touches on the building blocks of a health research system. Global and regional policies have therefore emphasized knowledge translation as a means to strengthen the health system itself and its impact in health and its determinants.
NATIONAL HEALTH RESEARCH SYSTEMS
Throughout the reporting period, the Region's countries, working closely with various stakeholders such as universities, advisory committees, and nongovernmental organizations, have strengthened their national health research systems (NHRSs) (7, 8, 9). For example, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela already have established key institutions, mechanisms, or policies that deal with country–level research in health. Some countries also have put in place funding mechanisms to support research that addresses their public health priorities or have set up incentives that promote the translation of research findings into policies and practice. Yet, new challenges have emerged. In some countries, research priorities are mere lists of conditions, and these conditions need to be linked to research and to specific questions that must be considered in order to tackle them.
Much of the countries' progress in regard to NHRSs is documented in the Health Research Web Americas (HRWeb Americas). Developed in 2010, the site is the first of its kind where countries can upload and share information such as policy documents, research agendas, descriptors of research ethics review committees, and networks; this body of knowledge provides a basis for monitoring and evaluating NHRSs.
Data uploaded in HRWeb Americas show that most Latin American countries (Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Paraguay, to name but four) already have developed comprehensive national health research policies, and most also have national health research agendas in place (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Panamá, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela), even though they may still need to better define lines of research. The CARICOM countries, working through a participatory process, established a shared agenda and a list of joint priorities for research in health; they also have set up formal entities, such as the Caribbean Health Research Council, to govern the relationship between actors within the ministries of health and those in the ministries or offices of science and technology. Moreover, at least 18 of the Region's countries have enacted legislation and set forth regulations providing protections for persons who participate as research subjects or have structured national commissions specifically charged with overseeing the ethics of research for health (10). Of special relevance is the number of countries that report that they have established health research priorities-by 2010, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela reported having done so; the CARICOM countries set research priorities in 2011 (8).
Despite structural and functional differences and uneven development levels from country to country, in 2006–2010 the Region as a whole advanced significantly in terms of the development of national policies, agendas, knowledge–translation platforms, and improved governance tools (e.g., registers, mapping systems, ethics committees). There also was greater regional cooperation which, should it continue, would bolster the impact of research and the consistency of standards and processes in coming years.
INVESTING IN RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
Sound and sustainable investment in research and development encourages innovation which, in turn, spurs economic growth and helps solve the Region's health problems (10, 11, 12). Although some Latin American and Caribbean countries have increased their expenditure on research and development since 2006 (e.g., Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Uruguay), no country has reached the goal of spending 2% of its health budget on this line item (expenditures on science and technology and on research for health and development [motion charts]) (7, 13, 14, 15, 16). Looking at the number of patents issued is a useful way to measure innovative output. Between 2006 and 2009, an average of 18,408 patents were granted each year in Latin America and the Caribbean (17). Yet, while some Latin American and Caribbean countries saw a greater number of granted patents between 2003 and 2005, the figure did not rise between 2006 and 2008 for most countries; patents did increase in the United States and Canada (in terms of total patents granted, residents, and non-residents).
Over time, the Region's countries have tried different modalities for financing health research, ranging from imposing levies, instituting reforms to grant greater organizational and financial autonomy to public research institutions, and creating public research funds (9, 10, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22). Without sufficient and dependable public funding for health research, private donors and international organizations end up funding a substantial part of the research, which is the case in much of the Americas. When this occurs, short–term endeavors are favored over long–term ones, and public health research projects lose out to biomedical research and to such disciplines as physics, chemistry, and biology (the so–called "hard sciences"), which absorb up to one–third of the total health research resources (23). Clearly, public financing mechanisms must be secured if Latin American and Caribbean countries are to shift away from private donors and international organizations-the Region's countries must have comprehensive national health research agendas that enable them to plan for needed research and to enlist stakeholders that can provide funding (20).
Best Practices and Improved Research Standards
The countries of the Americas have promoted, developed, and implemented important initiatives related to norms, guidelines, standards, and best practices in health research. Among the many examples, several countries developed and adopted mechanisms for clinical trial registration that comply with the standards of WHO's International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (7, 15, 24, 25). As a result, registrations of new clinical trials have soared: in Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, the number of new registered trials jumped from 51 in 2005 to 732 in 2010, a 1,400% increase. In addition, registries in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States are providing data to the ICTRP, and an open source registry platform (OpenTrials) has been created for the countries to implement (26, 27, 28, 29, 30). Some regulatory agencies and research institutes are using these registries in planning their programs and projects.
Efforts to strengthen tools for health research governance included the identification of national ethics committees and networks. Once identified, it becomes possible to strengthen research governance and collaborate on improving research standards and uses, such as by having the committees ensure compliance with research registration, appropriate ethical standards (including methodological standards), and the use of research findings in the protocols they review.3The following countries already have ethical committees in place: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
In another significant development, several countries-such as Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico-have set standards for the development and adaptation of technical guidelines and recommendations, repositories, and evidence summaries. The countries also have defined and organized international standards in order to systematically report on health research through initiatives such as the EQUATOR Network. The network regularly compiles-and makes available in Spanish and English-international guidelines and standards for writing and publishing research in health, with the participation of editors and regional experts who contribute to the progress of the initiative (30, 31).
Capacity and Human Resources
Although the need to have measures in place that can ensure the sustainable development of human resources in research has been much discussed and acknowledged throughout the Region, overall, this has not translated into the promotion, education, training, recruitment, and retention of researchers in the countries (7, 32). This illustrates the difficulty involved in attempting to link investment in health research to the valuable contributions such research makes to other social and economic sectors-the benefits of investing in health research are often reaped through other social and economic development sectors. Conversely, the failure to invest in health research means that a crucial driver of social and economic development remains untapped. Few countries have a global strategy for the education, training, and incorporation of human resources that is directed toward cultivating local talent and addressing the priorities set out in national policies for science, technology, and innovation for health (32). Moreover, such education and training should be coordinated with the productive sector, and research teams need to be multidisciplinary and stable (9, 31).
In this framework, the training of "student researchers" beginning with secondary education could be an agent of social transformation and a pillar for scientific capital (33). The quantitative upsurge in science and technology resources (financial and human) in the Region is the result of disparities in how different countries apply public policies, whereby only a few-e.g., Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba-account for the largest number of researchers relative to the economically active population.
Similarly, while the number of graduates with master's and doctoral degrees in 2006–2010 in Latin America and the Caribbean rose considerably, only a few countries-primarily Brazil and Mexico-are driving this trend, which is mostly concentrated in the social sciences (50%) in the case of master's programs, and in the exact and natural sciences and the humanities (46%) for doctorates. While progress has been made in South–South cooperation, it is still necessary to strengthen dialogue for the promotion of strategies that foster scientific capabilities (34).
Research Production Metrics, Promotion of Dissemination, and Translation of Knowledge
MEDLINE/PubMed is the foremost international index of scientific literature on health. It indexes the articles of nearly 5,500 journals published in 70 countries, 85 of them in Latin America and the Caribbean. Between 2006 and 2010, MEDLINE/PubMed indexed some 37,000 Latin American journal articles, equivalent to 1% of all articles indexed worldwide during that period. A review of the subset of MEDLINE/PubMed registries of articles from that period that identify the primary author's affiliation (nearly 3.68 million) yields nearly 88,000 articles (2.45%) whose primary author's affiliation is a Latin American or Caribbean country. Of the Latin American and Caribbean countries that figure in MEDLINE/PubMed registries and affiliations, Brazil-with 1.6% of the articles-ranks the highest. It is in thirteenth place in the international classification in which the top three countries, the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, together generate 36% of all articles for which a country affiliation is given. Brazil is followed by Argentina, with 0.3%, and Mexico, with 0.2%, of the total articles registered with a country of affiliation.
At the regional level, the LILACS4Spanish acronym for Latin American and Caribbean Literature on Health Sciences. database of scientific and technical literature in health published in the Latin American and Caribbean countries supplements these international indices. LILACS indexes the articles of 836 journals from 18 countries of the Region, in addition to other materials such as monographs, theses, government documents, and nonconventional literature (also known as gray literature). LILACS offers links to the complete texts of 76% of the 133,904 documents published between 2006 and 2010.
Brazil accounts for 54% of scientific articles from Latin America and the Caribbean included in the open access portal SCImago Journal and Country Rank,5http://www.scimagojr.com/. followed by Mexico with 12%, and Argentina with 9% (Figure 6.2).
An indicator of the impact that regional research is having on the health sector are the 1,076 MEDLINE/PubMed articles published between 2006 and 2010 that mention LILACS, mainly the systematic reviews (46%) registered in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR). During this period, a total of 244 Latin American and Caribbean journals published research findings obtained through LILACS searches. The consistent use, in recent years, of the findings from research carried out in Latin America and the Caribbean improves the likelihood that decision–making in health will increasingly be based on evidence drawn from those countries.
The systematic reviews, and their summaries, are examples of the types of literature associated with the knowledge–translation strategy. As a result of the EVIPNet initiative in the Americas, countries are beginning to prepare policy briefs, deliberative dialogues, and practical guides, all critical tools for informing, developing, and implementing policies designed to strengthen national health systems. In 2010, Brazil, Mexico, and Paraguay finalized their policy briefs for EVIPNet. Despite this progress, policy briefs from Latin America and the Caribbean are still not indexed in the body of literature found in the main indices.
In contrast, a 2008 methodological evaluation of the reviews in LILACS6http://lilacs.bvsalud.org. identified 240 systematic reviews from Latin America and the Caribbean. According to preliminary data from a supplementary evaluation currently in progress, more than 174 systematic reviews were published in 2009 and 2010. Figure 6.3 shows the distribution by country of 313 systematic reviews published between 2006 and 2010. As shown, 279 reviews-the vast majority-were published in Brazilian journals, while the remaining 34 were published in six countries (Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, and Peru).
Another indicator of scientific output is the number of primary studies generated in Latin America and the Caribbean and included in the systematic reviews. The Cochrane database has 837 reviews that include studies registered in LILACS in their analysis, equivalent to 18% of the 4,640 reviews it published in 2011. As far as the scientific output published in SciELO,7The acronym of the Scientific Electronic Library Online. and taking into account only journals found in its public health library, Brazil, once again, has been more prolific than its Latin American and Caribbean peers, with 83.4% of the articles published in 2006–2010. It is followed by Colombia (6.1%), Cuba (4.3%), Argentina (2.6%), Chile (1.2%), and Mexico (1.2%).
Knowledge Management In Health
KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE, COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE, AND NETWORKING
Access to quality health information is critical for the functioning of the health systems and for health services delivery. To date, a great deal of this information can be published and accessed through the Web, a practice that will only increase in the future.
In 2006, 72% of the Region's countries had official web portals devoted to health; by 2009, all did. Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, for example, have web portals offering information about their ministries of health and about health networks, as well as providing online services (35).
As the Internet evolves, Web–based technologies and their application to health systems and services will help make health care more equitable. By bringing health care information to different audiences (health administrators and professionals, patients, and the public at large) in a variety of contexts, these technologies can help overcome barriers such as insufficient human and infrastructure resources; a lack of equipment and medicines; the separation, both physical and cultural, between the services and the population that needs them; and low income (36).
In addition, the emergence of online collaborative spaces and social networks supported by Web applications-such as user groups and virtual communities, blogs, message threads, second–life applications, wikis, live–event broadcasts, real–time meeting feedback, mobile health and telemedicine, and eLearning opportunities-is empowering individuals and groups. Web–based movements, as well as global and regional information services, are also attempting to democratize the access to quality health information. The open access of scientific information is an example; in 2010, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela spearheaded this effort in the Region (37). Creative Commons8Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that issues alternative licenses to the more restrictive copyright licenses, in order to enhance the ability to copy and distribute material and maximize digital creativity, sharing, and innovation. also is playing an important role. Worldwide, projects under this type of knowledge–sharing license skyrocketed from 50 million in 2006 to 407 million in 2010. In Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico were the countries that most used this modality during the reporting period.
Moreover, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela are promoting the exchange of information and knowledge through their participation in health information networks such as the Virtual Health Library, ePORTUGUESe Network, Portal de evidencias médicas (medical evidence portal), Localizador de Información en Salud (Health Information Localizer), the SciELO Network, and the ScienTI Network.
Connectivity in the Region is generally fairly good. Challenges remain, however, including difficulties in harnessing accurate and up–to–date health information, leveraging the right technological tools, securing infrastructure funding, and developing sustainable dissemination models that are culturally relevant and that can be tailored to diverse health care and geographic environments.
Spurred by the rapid pace of technological evolution between 2006 and 2010 and the substantial opening up of information and communications through new technology, public and private institutions have adopted new work methods using Web–based technology. These methods embody doctrines of information expansion and exchange premised on the comparative advantage derived from the production, transfer, and practical application of knowledge. The Region of the Americas made enormous strides in this regard with the creation of 748 virtual rooms-compared to just 33 in 2006-that hosted nearly 20,000 virtual meetings. Besides speeding up the work of an organization, this type of activity offers the added benefits of remote data transfer, creating a synergy in work and in knowledge management. Virtual collaboration tools and methods not only facilitate such exchanges, but also encourage interactions and learning among the participants. Moreover, they promote the acquisition of strategic and competitive capacities and help reduce the costs and time involved in planning and implementation. When used in a systematic and standardized way, these methods boost productivity exponentially.
Web 2.0 and Social Networks
E–mail and information searches are by far the most common activities on the Internet. Since 2006, a steady 80% of Internet users in the United States search the Web for health–related information (38). Added to this are the remarkable developments-hastened by increased bandwidth and technological developments-brought about by Web 2.09Web 2.0 tools include blogs, wikis, web environments for sharing all types of resources (format–independent), and social networks. (the social Web). Based on the philosophy of citizen empowerment, Web 2.0 utilities provide users with more opportunities to share experiences and voice their opinions through online networks.
The interest in Web 2.0 in the Americas is reflected in the statistics on the most frequently visited websites in 2011, which-according to data from web.alexa-include Blogger, Facebook, hi5, Orkut, Wikipedia, WordPress, and YouTube.
These tools play an important role in health by facilitating information–sharing, which helps strengthen health promotion and disease prevention, and by persuading other information consumers to change their views. A study conducted by PAHO in 2011 revealed over 9 million connections (people on Facebook and Twitter) interested in topics related to chronic, noncommunicable diseases. Moreover, by facilitating the rapid flow of information in real time, sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube have proven effective in the management of public health emergencies and disasters. This was clear during the pandemic H1N1 virus outbreak (2009), the earthquake and subsequent cholera outbreak in Haiti (2010), and the earthquake in Chile (2010).
Social networks clearly played a significant role in both the Chilean and Haitian earthquakes, particularly in instantaneously relaying what was occurring (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) and in locating people who went missing during the catastrophes (e.g., Google). Sites such as Flickr, Twitpic, and YouTube also were used to share videos and other images from the emergencies and became information sources for the main international agencies and media outlets. Public health entities have, therefore, begun to include social communications strategies in their broader communications plans, so that they can effectively benefit from Web 2.0 by creating an institutional presence on social networks.
Digital Divide, eGovernment, and eHealth
According to Internet World Stats, Internet access in the Americas jumped from 329,574,000 users in 2006 to 488,005,000 in 2011 (37, 38). This growth was unevenly distributed among the subregions, with rates of 140% for South America, 99% for the Caribbean, 82% for Central America, and 17% for North America. As far as information and communication technology (ICT) coverage, according to ECLAC, access to mobile telephony and Internet services rose significantly (40%) between 2005 and 2009, while other services such as access to fixed telephony and broadband remained virtually unchanged (39).
Even with this expanded access to ICT, the digital divide is still a hurdle in the countries of the Americas, mainly due to socioeconomic factors, constantly evolving technologies, limited infrastructure, and lack of digital literacy. These barriers significantly hamper the development of eGovernment and eHealth policies in the Region. Access to mobile telephony in the richest households doubles that of the poorest households, while Internet access in the richest households is 37 times higher than in the poorest ones (39).
The use of ICT in the production and delivery of government services enhances their flexibility and effectiveness. In the Americas, the evolution of eGovernment can be summed up in four stages:
- In 2005 the Latin American and Caribbean countries signed the Plan of Action for the Information Society in Latin America and the Caribbean (eLAC 2007), which supported regional policy–making on eGovernment.
- In 2006, the Declaration of Santo Domingo on "Good Governance and Development in the Knowledge-based Society" focused on the modernization of the State through the design and implementation of electronic government strategies, including training programs for civil servants in this field.
- In 2009 the first Meeting of Ministers and High–level Authorities of Electronic Government in LAC organized by the Network of eGovernment Leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean (GEALC Network) took place in Montevideo.
- In 2010, a review of the eLAC 2010 Action Plan showed that all the countries of LAC had made progress in implementing ICT in the public sphere, while according to the 2010 Global E-Government Survey (United Nations), only Central America fell below the world average.
In the health field, the declining cost of ICT and the focus on innovation and quality in health care have brought the Region closer to the promise of unprecedented strides in health–related services in the era of the knowledge society. The adoption of a regional Strategy and Plan of Action on eHealth in September 2011 provides an important opportunity for collaboration in key areas such as telemedicine, mHealth, and eLearning and in tackling challenges such as electronic medical records and the interoperability of health management systems at the national and international levels.
Other recognized innovations in ICT in recent years have made it possible to introduce the concept of "virtual health services." An example comes from Panama, which opened the first virtual hospital in the Region of the Americas in 2001. Directed by radiologists and general practitioners, the program offers teleradiology, telemedicine, and continuing education services. This service delivery model facilitates speedy and timely diagnoses, which means that the patient can receive immediate treatment, and helps bridge the gaps in health care services and reduce waiting periods. It should be noted that the array of telemedicine services implemented between 2006 and 2010 did not achieve uniform coverage levels in the Region: initiatives in teleradiology, teledermatology, and telepsychiatry have achieved approximately 33% coverage, while telepathology services fall short of 8% (40). Brazil, Mexico, Panama, and Peru have had telemedicine policies in place for about five years, while Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, and Panama have enacted legislation to ensure the confidentiality of personal information, as well as a set of specific regulations to protect personal identity in electronic medical records.10The regional seminars on eHealth and telemedicine in LAC organized each year by the Latin American and Caribbean Economic System (SELA) serve as a yardstick for such practices.
Mobile health (or mHealth, as it is often called) has received considerable attention since about 2005. And, as media coverage of this issue has increased, so has investment in it. Some mHealth applications include treatment compliance, asynchronous (using Short Message Service or SMS) and synchronous (using voice) diagnostic and decision support, data collection and health surveys, health services mapping, continuing professional development for health care workers, health promotion and community mobilization, patient monitoring, and emergency toll–free telephone services. In the Region, the mHealth services that have mostly been used during the reporting period have been call centers, free telephone use in emergencies, mobile telemedicine, medical–appointment reminders, community mobilization, and information transfers.
Between 2006 and 2010, Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and the United States have undertaken mHealth initiatives. The Text4Baby project in the United States is a good example. This first, free health text–messaging service in the country helps women give birth to and care for healthy babies. Once mothers and mothers–to–be register for the program (either online or directly from their cell phones) they begin receiving free messages with tips for a safe pregnancy or for caring for their babies. The messages are targeted to the woman's due date or to her child's birthdate. This user–friendly program is also available in Spanish. Given that 85% of Americans own a cell phone and a large proportion of those use text–messaging, this program's reach is impressive.
Throughout Latin America, the use of mobile devices has improved the timeliness and accuracy of data collection (41). Nicaragua's mVac project, for example, uses a mobile device with an open source software package to record vaccination information and submit it to a central registry (42). This end–to–end mobile phone–based solution can be implemented in almost any country (42). Mexico's Ministry of Health also is working on automating vaccination SMS reminders, and other countries (Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru) are considering launching projects to assess the effectiveness and cost of reminder–recall systems using SMS and voice messages. In developing countries, these types of patient reminder and recall systems in primary care settings have been shown to be effective in improving immunization rates (43).
According to WHO (44), the main barriers to implementing mHealth in the Americas are competing health system priorities (75%) and the absence of legal guidelines on information privacy and confidentiality (50%). WHO also identifies the lack of knowledge of this field and lack of evidence of its cost–effectiveness as an influential factor (30%).
According to the Health Agenda for the Americas 2008-2017, human resource education continues to use traditional modalities that do little to encourage the development of leadership and creativity. In this context, eLearning focuses on developing the competencies of human resources for health in the Region of the Americas and is one of the main tools for modifying current health practices and institutional behavior. The main barriers to access to eLearning in the Region of the Americas are: lack of infrastructure, lack of a political framework for action, lack of knowledge about the applications in use, and lack of demand for this educational method.
The Virtual Campus of Public Health (VCPH) network, with 12 country nodes, encompasses two main approaches to priority areas of public health and primary health care (PHC): the Moodle Network for educational processes, and the Open Educational Resources (OER) Network. In 2008–2010, the VCPH offered 30 regional courses, which were successfully completed by 1,636 participants from 25 countries, and published 2,538 educational resources. This network facilitates educational processes in various modalities and formats, and provides a platform for interaction between groups and people from different contexts, regardless of the distance.
Since one of the main challenges in the Region today is to achieve interoperability, the priority for the countries of the Americas will be to agree to a single and univocal national electronic format for the identification and registration of all actors in the health system. The Region will also have to develop regulatory frameworks for the medical and legal validation of electronic medical records, making digital certification equivalent to physical (paper) certification. It also needs to establish the medical and legal validity of clinical services provided through telemedicine. Moreover, if countries are to benefit from the successful practices and lessons learned in health at the national and regional levels, they will have to make an effort to maintain ongoing dialogue and encourage participation and knowledge–sharing. If they are to reduce persistent inequities in health and mount an effective and efficient response to demographic and epidemiological transitions, the countries of the Americas will have to devise or revisit strategies for integrating research findings into health policies and strategies, for knowledge management, and for the use of ICT aligned with health policies. This requires a systems–based approach and the strengthening of national health research systems to ensure that they reinforce the health care system and contribute effectively and efficiently to improving people's well–being.
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