Access to health services in the region and the role of information technology and communications to achieve were the main axes of the opening of the Ninth Regional Congress of Information in Health Sciences (CRICS9), organized by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) and its Latin American and Caribbean Center on Health Sciences (BIREME), between 22 and 24 October in Washington, DC.
“It is important to remember that vulnerable populations and communities in the Region continue to have unequal access to health information and technologies, especially when you consider gender and ethnicity,” said the Director of PAHO, Dr. Mirta Roses Periago, at the opening of CRICS9. “We should work harder each day to bridge these gaps if we want to succeed in eliminating health disparities,” she said.
In her opening remarks, Dr. Roses emphasized that access to reliable information and the exchange of health-related knowledge through use of information and communications technologies “is critical to the promotion of health in the Americas and is a guiding principle of our work and the reason why the topic of eHealth was chosen for CRICS9.”
Over the three-day conference, whose slogan was “eHealth: reaching universal access to health,” health and health sciences information professionals shared experiences and exchanged information on programs, projects, systems, and scientific health information and communication networks in the Region. Keynote speeches, round tables, panels, and other sessions provided opportunities to discuss public health topics in five thematic areas: information for health decision-making, strategy and public policy, information and communication technologies, telehealth, and capacity building.
Dr. Roses reaffirmed PAHO’s commitment to Member States to work for the establishment of national and regional policies to promote free, equitable, and open access to evidence-based scientific information; the education of health workers so that they can work effectively in an “information society”; the dissemination of critical health information to the public in order to support people in making decisions about their health; and the strengthening of BIREME and the Virtual Health Library to improve the management of scientific and technical information in health sciences, etc.
For his part, Ariel Pablos-Méndez, Assistant Administrator for Global Health at the Agency for International Development of the United States (USAID) highlighted the progress made in eHealth over the past decade and the rapid pace at which it has been achieved. He also described how the world is moving toward the achievement of universal health coverage and wondered how eHealth can contribute to reaching that objective.
It can empower patients and service providers to make decisions and to seek help when they need it, he suggested. He added that eHealth can also help health care providers, increasing access to health information and improving record-keeping and health services management, including mobile payment. He said that eHealth can help achieve these goals as well reduce infant mortality to the degree that it helps reduce gaps and interoperability issues that limit options for advancing eHealth. CRICS has always been at the forefront of this area, he said, indicating that he looked forward to working with attendees on these matters.
The Executive Director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), Georges Benjamin, said that the world is increasingly interconnected and that a main challenge is still to make technology accessible to all. He observed that the United States has taken an important step forward toward ensuring that its citizens have access to health services and emphasized that technology will play a key role in achieving this goal. In the framework of collaborating with PAHO, CRICS provides a good opportunity to understand how to do that, he said.
Michael F. Huerta, an associate director at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), spoke of the collaboration between his institution and PAHO that extends back four decades, well before the Internet he noted. PAHO and the Virtual Health Library set up an electronic network to share health information. Huerta said that PAHO always has been a leader in this area and has helped the NLM a great deal. The idea of being able to easily transfer information and that people know the various health options available will have a significant impact on the world, he said, adding that his organization hopes to continue working with PAHO on these topics.
Marcelo D’Agostino, Manager of Knowledge Management and Communication at PAHO delineated the various steps that the Organization has taken with Member States to reduce the gaps and extend access to health information. Adalberto Tardelli, Director of BIREME and President of CRICS9 stated that conference participants had a lot to do with regard to implementing collaborative projects to ensure universal access to health.
E-Health can contribute to the sustainable development of health systems by improving access to services and their quality, through use of information and communications technologies (ICT), digital literacy training, access to evidence-based and continuing distance education.
The term eHealth encompasses a range of items, including electronic medical records (electronic case histories), telehealth (including telemedicine), mHealth (mobile devices in health), e-learning (including distance training), continuing education in information and communication technologies, and e-Health standards and interoperability within and between different technologies and software applications to ensure the transfer and use of data in an efficient, accurate, and robust manner.
The CRICS series began in 1992 during the meeting of the representatives of the 37 countries that comprised the Latin American Health Information System, known today as the Virtual Campus for Public Health. It began as an innovative conference in the fields of scientific information and communication, knowledge management, information methodologies and technologies and their applications in the development of research, education, and health care. Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Mexico hosted previous CRICS conferences.