Associate Professor Dohyeong Kim PhD is Director and Global Health Specialist of Center for Geospatial Research in Global Health Policy in School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at University of Texas at Dallas; and Priyanka Vyas is conducting her PhD under his supervision. With Professor Malabika Sarkar PhD from James P. Grant School of Public Health at BRAC University, the trio recently published a study which ‘identified several issues — including a lack of collaboration between institutions and lack of trained personnel — that keep Bangladesh from fully adopting the use of spatial tools’ in public health services.
Now, what opportunities Bangladesh can hopefully create by employing tools of Geographic Information System (GIS) in public health sector and how to start? In an online interview with Mohammad Arju from Daily Sun, two of the authors- Dohyeong Kim PhD and Priyanka Vyas have explains …
‘It would be critical to move beyond the descriptive use of maps’
Dohyeong Kim PhD and Priyanka Vyas
The government of Bangladesh has already put the health service’s geographical data on Google map down to sub-district levels, and data of village level facilities will be available soon. Based on that, what’s your observation about data which is needed to be gathered before proceeding to explore full potentials of GIS tools in public health sector?
The efforts of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to collect geographic data of health facilities are a step in the right direction. But these data cannot be analyzed in isolation without availability of other GIS data that are required for analysis along with other demographic and socioeconomic data. Therefore, in order to make full use of GIS tools with the health facilities GIS data, it is important to integrate it with other health indicators and information systems before one could use it for analytical purpose. We don’t see as much deficiency in data gathering as much as we see in sharing the data that is already collected among the different government entities. As our article also highlighted, this is the single and the most critical barrier in exploiting the full use of GIS.
Then does not it sound like preparedness of public heath related government agencies is not enough? Are you hopeful that this broader inter-agency collaboration will happen in Bangladesh for a better public health sector and why?
We believe that government officials in charge of producing GIS data in several government agencies other than the Health Ministry recognize this problem. Perhaps the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics is already making efforts to bring different agencies under a single umbrella. BBS is also doing interesting work to integrate GIS data with census data. This is a positive step.
Ultimately, the demand has to drive the supply in such cases. So if more academics, multilateral organizations working in Bangladesh, and officials in the public sector use GIS more widely for formulating policy reports and case studies to communicate with the general public, then different government agencies that are currently working in silos will be forced to collaborate and disseminate their GIS data. This problem of lack of sharing information between different agencies is not just unique to Bangladesh but even for other countries. But Bangladesh is already ahead in the game in collecting GIS data than other developing countries. Maybe through collaboration between different agencies for sharing data, it can set one more example for other developing nations to follow.
Bangladeshi public health workers are using gathered geographical data for disease surveillance and mapping health facilities already. In addition, the Health Ministry is now working on to establish GIS based reporting. Now, what more do you foresee as possible?
Well, technology can help us be better informed, but it cannot by itself solve all problems. So the first thing would be expanding training and basic understanding of the use of GIS-based tools in public sector for informed decision making. This can help officials, who may not be located in the Health Ministry, but serving local level government agencies or health centers also understand and appreciate the purpose of such tools.
By doing so, one can expect to see an increase in scale and scope of GIS within the health sector. However, it also requires on the part of the Health Ministry to plan policies and allocate budgets and resources based on GIS tools --- only then it can act as a catalyst for informed decision-making.
In terms of opportunities in the near future, within the government organizations it would be critical to move beyond the descriptive use of maps and start leveraging upon the modeling capabilities to plan policies and evaluate the effectiveness of programs. Again this is something we mentioned in the paper – but even though GIS is used for disease surveillance and modeling health accessibility, most of this work remains in the realm of academic research, with limited application for actual policy planning. Going forward, we would really like to see these tools being used by the government for health planning and resource allocation.
You know, forty-six percent of the Bangladeshi population lives low-elevation coastal zone, within 10 meters of the average sea level. Communication is difficult along the 710 km shoreline. What promises GIS holds to make health services more available and inclusive in such a zone?
GIS can play an important role in tracking service delivery; improve logistics in the supply chain of drugs, vaccines, and other essential commodities that could improve access for people living in such low lying elevation zones. It has capability to find the optimal route based on Bangladesh’s unique topography and provide a solution while taking into consideration the geographical constraints that people living in areas are subjected to. These tools can help government plan, manage, and monitor resources more effectively.
Well, if Bangladesh decides for proceeding with more use of GIS in delivering health services, as Research Scientists, how you’d love to be the part the process?
Two professors in my center, including myself, offered a weekly GIS workshop at ICDDR, B in Dhaka in September 2014 to train health professionals on GIS and spatial analysis skills. We would be happy to continue such training activities and collaborative research projects to promote the use of GIS in delivering health services in Bangladesh in the future.