Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Harmonizing health information systems with information systems in other social and economic sectors

Sarah B. Macfarlane


Efforts to strengthen health information systems in low- and middle-income countries should include forging links with systems in other social and economic sectors. Governments are seeking comprehensive socioeconomic data on the basis of which to implement strategies for poverty reduction and to monitor achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The health sector is looking to take action on the social factors that determine health outcomes. But there are duplications and inconsistencies between sectors in the collection, reporting, storage and analysis of socioeconomic data. National offices of statistics give higher priority to collection and analysis of economic than to social statistics.

The Report of the Commission for Africa has estimated that an additional US$ 60 million a year is needed to improve systems to collect and analyse statistics in Africa. Some donors recognize that such systems have been weakened by numerous international demands for indicators, and have pledged support for national initiatives to strengthen statistical systems, as well as sectoral information systems such as those in health and education.

Many governments are working to coordinate information systems to monitor and evaluate poverty reduction strategies. There is therefore an opportunity for the health sector to collaborate with other sectors to lever international resources to rationalize definition and measurement of indicators common to several sectors; streamline the content, frequency and timing of household surveys; and harmonize national and sub-national databases that store socioeconomic data.

Without long-term commitment to improve training and build career structures for statisticians and information technicians working in the health and other sectors, improvements in information and statistical systems cannot be sustained.