Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Health information system reform in South Africa: developing an essential data set

Vincent Shaw


Health services are increasingly under pressure to develop information systems that are responsive to changing health needs and appropriate to service objectives. Developing an essential data set provides managers with a clearly defined set of indicators for monitoring and evaluating services. This article describes a process that resulted in the creation of an essential data set at district level. This had a significant impact on neighbouring districts and resulted in the development of a regional essential data set, which in turn helped to influence the creation of a provincial and then national essential data set. Four key lessons may be drawn from the process. The development of an essential data set both requires and can contribute to a process that allows the reporting requirements to be adjusted over time in response to changing circumstances. In addition, it contributes to (and requires) the integration of programme reporting requirements into a coherent information system. While the case study describes a bottom-up approach, a top-down consultative process is advocated because it establishes a framework within which information needs can be reviewed. Lastly, the use of surveys can aid efforts to keep the essential elements to a minimum. In conclusion, the development of an essential data set contributes to strengthening health services because it necessitates dialogue between programme managers and defines indicators to be monitored by them.