Government Policy, Health Systems, mHealth, Healthcare Workforce

Empowerment is Key to Improving Health Infrastructure in Developing Countries

~Written by Kathleen Lee, MPH Epidemiology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center (Contact:

Providing greater health access and more efficient health care delivery, especially for vulnerable populations, are priorities for anyone involved in public health. Poor health systems in developing countries mean a shortage of trained health care workers, inconsistent inventory of medical supplies, and inadequate surveillance systems. This list is not exhaustive, but we can start here. Building a better health infrastructure, like many public health priorities, requires multi-level coordination. Empowerment has to spread out from the government to the community and to the individual.

We can address the problem first by tackling the shortage of health care workers. Doctors in developing countries are in critically short supply. In 2006, the World Health Organization compiled data on the impact of HIV/AIDS on the health workforce in developing countries. Results showed that while European and North American countries have doctors at a ratio of 160 to 560 per 100,000 people, African countries only have two to sixty doctors for every 100,000. In Malawi, for example, there is one doctor for every 50,000 people. The global shortage of trained hospital and health care staff currently exceeds four million. Training more staff and volunteers is one solution for improving health systems in developing countries. Training other previously unqualified individuals could ameliorate these shortages. Providing incentives for already trained workers to stay in a vulnerable state or country could help build a struggling health system. Having a foundation of trained workers and preventing them from migrating to wealthier countries is an important first step. Empowerment and opportunities to grow and help are at the heart of this strategy.

The second hurdle is maintaining a constant inventory of equipment, medicines, and other health supplies. War, along with political and social unrest, in certain regions further dampens the efforts to provide a steady supply chain. There has to be cooperation between donors and the government to work with the private sector to ensure receipt of necessary health supplies. Partnering with emerging pharmacy chains increases the availability of medicines and drives down the cost for the patients. In the Philippines, Generics Pharmacy has thousands of small storefronts that are widely used by both the rich and poor. Convenience and ease of access are often of paramount interest to every person, regardless of income. The issue of payment is another facet of the supply and demand problem. Corruption that trickles to the local governments, and even the health care workers themselves, leads to some patients having to pay for medicine or services that should have been free. Reforming payment systems to ensure that patients have the medicines delivered before payment is processed directly to the provider will empower the patients and promote compliance. 

Compounding the shortage problems, both of trained workers and supplies, are the inadequate surveillance systems in place. This is the third issue that needs to be addressed, and it is arguably the most crucial. Surveillance is necessary to monitor not only the needs within health facilities, but also within the community and surrounding areas. Without real-time tracking of disease and medical supplies, logisticians, doctors and community health workers are unable to properly estimate need and completely evaluate the effectiveness of their clinic’s efforts. This is where data comes into play. The Novartis Malaria Initiative, under the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, has led SMS for Life, which harnesses mobile phones, internet, and electronic mapping technology to track stock levels for health facilities. Sending SMS messages between health facilities and the district medical officers ensures treatment availability. Stock-outs have been reduced in Tanzania during a six-month pilot program from 79% to 26% in three districts. Not only are these stock-outs reduced, but when they occur, they are also resolved much quicker due to the ease of communication. In areas where internet is unavailable or running inconsistently, Relief Watch has offered a similar solution. It also uses mobile technology, but the application allows workers to not only track supplies but also disease ( The easy and free setup is invaluable to developing countries that have previously relied on paper spreadsheets and forms. Giving workers data at their fingertips gives them more control over their health facility and their patients. These technological innovations are not only crucial for immediate supply tracking and disease surveillance, but they provide research institutions and governing bodies more accurate data. After all, it is data that public health professionals and policy-makers rely on to make decisions and plan strategies. 

The aforementioned plan to improve health systems is by no means novel. Public health practitioners have stressed the importance of training more workers, creating a steady supply chain of treatments, and addressing surveillance shortcomings for decades. Adhering to these solutions requires cooperation and active coordination that extend from the public to the private sector. This is something that cannot be over-emphasized. Empowerment—of individuals, community health workers, and governing bodies of fragile states—is an important foundation from which a better health infrastructure can grow.


The impact of HIV/AIDS on the health workforce in developing countries
Healthcare logistics: delivering medicines to where they're needed most
SMS for Life
Relief Watch
Avert: Universal access to HIV treatment