Technology + Cultural Competency = Healthcare Success

April 06, 2017
Dilani Logan (in orange shirt) poses in front of a sign at the 2017 Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society conference.

By Dilani Logan, 1st-year MSc-GH student

“What exactly is global health?”

This is a fairly common question asked of people who work in or study global health. Yet somehow, even after years of being interested in it, and now pursuing a graduate degree in the field, I still have a difficult time defining global health because of its breadth.

Global health isn’t exactly a science, but it’s not entirely a social science or humanities subject either. Personally, the interdisciplinary nature of the subject is what drew me in. I love and appreciate the variety of subject matter and methods of thinking that go into solving—or at the very least, improving—some of the world’s most difficult development issues. 

To me, the interdisciplinary combination of scientific research with culturally aware and sensitive practices to bring about policy and programming changes is the hallmark of global health. I think it’s what makes it such a successful and emerging field. 

Being in a field that prioritizes the importance of context in implementation has somewhat clouded my idea of how other health-related fields operate. However, while attending a recent conference that was slightly outside my comfort zone, I came to discover that while global health has a lot to gain from other fields, it also has a lot to offer.

Innovations at Health Informatics Conference Were Relevant to Global Health

In February I attended and worked at a health informatics conference in Orlando, Florida. The conference focused on the development, implementation and utilization of tech solutions for improving the efficacy of health systems. It brought together some of the brightest minds in tech and healthcare to collaborate on the issues facing the future of healthcare in the Western world. Throughout the conference, I learned about a variety of apps, programs and tools that are being created to tackle major healthcare problems and digitize our healthcare system. 

While use of these innovations in low- and middle-income countries wasn’t the focus of many of the companies, I couldn’t help but think about the impact that some of these tools—such as advanced electronic health recordkeeping tools and personalized connections to physicians—could have in those settings. However, many of these incredible healthcare innovations are in early stages and still need heavy amounts of financing to get off the ground, so utilization in development-based projects doesn’t seem to be on the agenda for most of them—at least not in the foreseeable future. 

The Role of Organizational Culture in Implementation Success

Overall, there was a lot to be gained by global health practitioners at this conference. Throughout the week, I attended a number of workshops and talks that expanded my knowledge on the issues associated with implementation of recordkeeping technologies and increased healthcare digitization such as overcoming policy-based issues facing issues of patient privacy and confidentiality.

But simultaneously, conference participants likely would have benefited from an increased presence of global health practitioners. 

For example, I worked at a discussion about implementing new electronic health record (EHR) systems within clinical settings and getting all staff trained. The speaker opened up the discussion by asking the audience about the challenges they personally faced in implementing HER systems. Many described issues with getting staff to take the trainings or blamed weird scheduling in hospital settings on the failure of achieving EHR compliance within the workplace. The speaker then asked the audience what they thought culture was and why it was important to consider when implementing a system like this. 

To my surprise, in this room full of physicians, engineers and heads of businesses (all of whom had been relatively forthcoming with their opinions all day), no one raised their hands. Even with increased prodding by the speaker, no one offered a viable response. Eventually the speaker shared with the audience that it’s important to take into account the culture of the clinical settings they work in, such as working hours, internal power hierarchy and the hospital or clinic’s history with adding new technologies and practices. 

As I looked around the room, it was almost as if a lightbulb had gone off in many of these participants’ heads. I found it a little surprising, because within our program, cultural competency is one of the first concepts we learn. While many of us do not have deep technological expertise, our understanding of the importance of gaining cultural context and being sensitive to the demands of the communities we work with is certainly one of the strengths of global health practitioners around the world. 

Bringing Varied Expertise Together Is a Win-Win

Upon leaving the conference, I reflected a lot on that experience. Within global health, being interdisciplinary means that no one is an expert on everything. Some global health practitioners and researchers are working on health-related technologies with global health applications, and this is an area that might be beneficial for more of us to explore. However, other fields such as the more tech-related health informatics sector could also stand to learn from the types of training that we receive as future global health practitioners to implement systems and programs more effectively and ensure their intended audience is actually using the materials. 

Overall, the conference highlighted that no one knows everything, but with increased collaboration and partnerships to share and disseminate knowledge, we can jointly solve more of the world’s key health and development issues.