Informed Choices for Improved Health: Training Health Professionals in Data-Driven Decision-Making

The decisions we make in public health have a direct impact on people’s quality of life and well-being. Whether working at the national or community level, with millions of beneficiaries, or a single village, we have a responsibility to make well-informed choices and timely decisions regarding interventions, resources, and finances. Each life is invaluable. Each decision critical.

On October 31, 23 Union Conference participants from 21 nations completed a post-graduate course designed to improve their use of data for decision making. Some of these professionals struggle with a lack of data to inform health programming, whereas others shared that the abundance of data is often overwhelming when it comes to strategic planning and effective project implementation. As members of the USAID-funded TB CARE I Program Management Unit, the course facilitators from KNCV Tuberculosis Foundation and Management Sciences for Health (MSH) empathize with these concerns. Using their program implementation experience and expertise in data management, these six professionals developed a course called, “Data for Decision for Making and Use of Data for Continuous Improvement.” During this full-day course, the facilitators led presentations and discussions that challenged participants to apply intuition, personal experience, and prioritization strategies to decision making. They also highlighted the importance of assessing outcomes to inform and refine decision, rather focusing only on the data.

 [They] emphasized that we need to look at the impact – there’s so much data that you get but it’s also helpful to focus on the effect. Rather than look at the process indicators – we should look at the outcomes, said participant Bernard Sichinga, a monitoring and evaluation officer from Zambia.

Dr. Ersin Topcuoglu, TB CARE I’s Deputy Director of Operations and M&E, encouraged participants to make timely decisions and take action with the understanding that all choices require regular reassessment and revision.

It’s important to be predictive not reactive – you have data so, based on this data, you make a decision and predict what’s going to happen next. Then you just need to test and improve – not only the data but also the decision.

Claire Moodie, TB CARE I’s Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, and Rosanne van Halm, TB CARE I’s Finance Team Leader, helped participants apply these strategies by facilitating a case study activity. In the first case study round, Claire and Rosanne divided the class into groups and gave each team a country map and 12 magnets representing GeneXpert machines (TB diagnostic instruments). They asked the teams to make a plan for distributing the GeneXpert machines throughout the country in a manner that would maximize health impact. As they’d been taught, participants assessed the information provided in the map and applied their intuition and field experience to fill in the gaps and develop a dissemination plan in the allotted time.

In each subsequent round, Claire and Rosanne offered slightly more data, allowing the groups to revise and improve their plans as they developed their knowledge of the nation’s population density, disease burden, resources, and other details.

Participants were eager to apply these strategies and others to improve decision making and data quality in their respective countries. Alexinah Muadinohamba, deputy director of the Health Sector Response for Namibia’s Ministry of Health, explained how she would apply the course’s lessons on shared ownership of decision making:

Health workers should be able to use the [data] tools themselves to make decisions. They should be able to analyze it [and] use it themselves for operational research. If you don’t do that, staff feel demotivated and they don’t provide quality data.

As he concluded the session, Dr. Ersin Topcuoglu reminded the class that decision-making is a process.

Don’t be paralyzed waiting for the perfect set of data. Put your experience on the table and then constantly evaluate the data to determine how well the decision-making is working.

Eugenne Elliott nodded at Dr. Topcuoglu’s remarks from the back row. “It’s true,” she said. “I love data but we have to remember we’re not treating numbers – we’re treating real people.”

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Learn more about TB CARE I.

Jessica Charles is a communications specialist at MSH.

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