How Information Technology Can Empower & Enhance Medical Health Research in Kenya

Medical Research has been ongoing in Kenya and around the continent for the last 40 years, findings undertaken by researchers have led to breakthroughs in new medicines and cures as well as informed Policies in the health sector of many countries.

Unfortunately Medical Research, as a practice, has encountered challenges.Some of which could easy be overcome using cheap, free or inexpensive Information Technology(IT) solutions.If these solutions are properly implemented, they can drastically bring down the cost of conducting research, ensuring collection of health/medical data from the field is of the highest quality, reliability and accuracy as well as simply the work of researchers thus ensuring they can focus on delivering their findings in a quick and cost effective way.

Below is my take on six ways Information Technology can empower researchers on the continent and around the world in their work

1.Collaboration

Collaboration is a very important aspect of medical research.Researchers in Kenya and around the world are always working together on projects in relation to certain diseases, drugs e.t.c.Therefore these researchers are always working on documents,photos,videos and other research materials by teaming up and facilitating their activities.One way they are collaborating is using email and document editing tools separately like Microsoft outlook clients,gmail,hotmail and yahoo mail…as well as Microsoft word,powerpoint,excel…i.e. A researcher works on a proposal or any other document using Microsoft Word then attaches the document on email and sends it to other researchers who download the attachment and review as well as edit the document, thereby creating another version. A quicker easier way is the same document uploaded to the cloud (OneDrive or google drive) then users are granted access to the document via sharing through mail where they click a link and open the document simultaneously in the browser. Here they can edit, share comments and chat via IM. Two or more users can work on the same document irrespective of geographical location locally or globally.

This reduces costs such as travelling expenses and courier for documents as well as speeds up some projects especially where entry of data. If documents require signatures, tools like DocuSign and Adobe Sign are easily available and cheaper to access.

2.Data Collection

Medical Research involves data, collection and accumulation of lots and lots of data…Data from the field, data from the labs, data from medical records. This data is collected by researchers through the ordinary filing of paperwork, data from the field is collected first in paper format, and most medical records locally are in the form of paper. This form of data collection is slow and time consuming since to make sense of that data one has to manually enter it into a digital record. The cost of acquiring paper is also rising and storing lots of paper is an added long term cost.

To mitigate all this, data collection can be refined and reformatted using technology. Through use of low cost tablets and open source software that is structured to collect data from the field in certain formats and quickly uploading it to a database in a central location. This devices and software can be adjusted for use in remote locations where there is little or no connectivity. These devices also are equipped with sensors that can be used to collect relevant information such as weather, blood pressure, temperature, humidity etc. also using extra hardware linked to the devices. This can enable researchers to add more context to the data collected thus assisting in providing more in depth insight into analyzed data.

3.Communications

Medical Researchers are always in constant communication. Researchers have to communicate in order to facilitate planning and execution of their set goals and targets in a project. Communication also empowers them to share thoughts, ideas and information necessary for them to be effective in their work. Currently, researchers are used to communication tools like WhatsApp, SMS, Skype and Regular phone calls. These forms of communication are fine but they are not captured in the context of carrying out medical research. If researchers could use instant messaging and communications linked directly with the aspect/context of project being worked on, these communications can add more in depth context into what researchers are going through and how fast they are progressing in execution of their work. Such tools like slack, skype/Lync and google messaging have these kinds of abilities while providing the necessary speed, security and reliability in communications between researchers.

4.Data Analysis

Medical researchers use data analysis to make sense of the raw data that has been collected from the field. Data analysis tools like IBM’s SPSS are being used by researchers to compute data and generate information based on various set practices and standards to achieve desired results and outcomes. Depending on the kind of tools used, researchers are able to get clarity into an area they are studying or insightful research findings that can be used to inform policy decisions on a higher level. Data analysis helps researchers see trends, behaviors and areas of interests they might have overlooked in regards to data collected from a certain area over a certain period of time. It can also provide researchers with insightful knowledge into new ways of treatment or creating cures and vaccines for particular ailments in the study. The tools recommended for use need to be quick and easy to use, have better visualization tools/elements, quicker/faster data ingestion and output and able to source important information from various sources. Data analysis tools also need to enable medical researchers to conduct analysis on their work on the go and their request while being able to be queried and produce reports based on the queries made.

5.Information Distribution/Publication

Medical researchers need to be able to publish their results or findings to the public and/or to sponsors of the project that conducted the research. Locally research findings are published in local and international conferences as well as PubMed, the online medical research journal available to researchers globally. Locally there is no central platform/organization that has a repository for all the research findings, results and data generated from medical research apart from records held by the Ministry of health. Going forward, due to the nature of medical research conducted by The Ministry of Health through KEMRI and the ongoing legislation on open access of government data to the public. The Ministry of Health and KEMRI as well as other medical research institutions need to create a partnership with the National library services of Kenya where all research findings and data produced through funding by the government via Internal research grants is availed in physical copies and digital format through an online platform for access and use by the public. This enabling the government through its institutions to provide necessary information for use by all citizens.

6.Information Security & Storage

Data and information generated in the process of medical research is confidential in most cases and requires utmost integrity, reliability, accuracy and confidentiality. This means limiting access to data through use of permissions and encryption mechanisms so that those who are malicious and intend to use medical research for purposes of causing harm to the general public are thwarted and are unable to do so. In light of this, local researchers need to ensure they are using up-to-date software and tools with enhanced security and permissions as well as ensure that their data on medical research is secure when in transit, at rest or being used. Through use of updated software tools and use of encrypted storage and communication tools as well as analytical software that is hardened, most loopholes used by hackers or users with malicious intent are closed thus denying them the opportunity to access, manipulate, steal or hold that data in ransom.