A Portal to Better Healthcare: How The ORTEC Big Data Portal Helps North Star Alliance Offer Quality Health Services in Africa

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Big data is impacting every aspect of society, including healthcare. Data has always been key to measure the quality of care, analyze health trends, predict epidemics and improve treatments. But today, we can do this faster and better than ever before. ORTEC helps healthcare organizations leverage analytics to improve their processes and the outcomes of care. North Star Alliance is one of those organizations we’re incredibly proud to work with.

Photographer: Dave Chidley

Photographer: Dave Chidley

North Star is a social enterprise that brings high quality health services to mobile populations in Sub-Saharan Africa through a network of Roadside Wellness Centres. We’ve been working with North Star since 2009 and helped them develop an electronic patient registration system called COMETS [Corridor Medical Transportation System]. COMETS earned us the GBCHealth Business Action on Health Award in 2013. The organization is now using our Big Data Portal to improve their reporting and data visualization. In this interview, Ylse van der Schoot (Executive Director at North Star) talks about their experience.


Ylse, could you tell us more about your work and your data needs?

Nowadays, North Star runs 36 clinics in 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. We see an average of 15,000 clients per month in our network of clinics or “Roadside Wellness Centres” [RWCs]. We call them RWCs because we do not only focus on treating people when they are sick, but also focus on awareness of health risks, education to change lifestyle behavior, etc. Wellness is the more holistic interpretation of health which is relevant to mobile populations who are more prone to certain risks due to the nature of their work. Our target group includes truck drivers, sex workers and communities that interact with these groups along Africa’s major transport corridors.

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Photographer: Gareth Bentley

This constant mobility makes real-time access to data crucial. Often, patients cannot go to the same clinic for treatment, so our physicians across the RWC network need to record and access all kinds of patient-related data to monitor their conditions, assess their needs and make sure we treat our clients in the best way possible regardless of where they are. These data are also important for patients who might need to have their medical history at hand.

Other stakeholders in our organization have different information needs. For instance, our management team, partners and donors use these data to monitor the performance of our clinics. Our offices leverage the data to report outcomes to local health authorities and regulators. Researchers, for instance, might be interested in using the data to study disease trends or adherence practices in the region.

Privacy is another extremely important need. While we require access to information, the data is encrypted for security purposes. Any data we share within North Star or externally are aggregated and anonymous.

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Photographer: Oupa Nkosi

What are the short-term and longterm goals you hope to achieve by gaining these insights?

Our short-term goals are quite practical. We need a quick way to look up patient data and monitor our performance to report on our outreach and impact. Typical metrics include how many clients we have in a day, what kind of sessions they need, the average visits per month, how often clients return, etc.

In the long-term we have two main goals: we want to scale-up and we want to provide more insight into the clients’ health trends. We work with renowned academic partners to analyze the performance of our clinics and the health of our clients. Ultimately, we hope these data will have a positive impact by sharpening, for example, government health policies in the region and helping the transport sector to adapt working conditions with positive outcomes for the drivers and the companies.

How did you carry out reporting before introducing the Big Data Portal?

In the past, our IT team generated reports by running queries on the COMETS database and copying the data to Excel sheets. This made reporting time consuming. Reports were also more prone to errors and inconsistencies.

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What kind of improvements have you seen with the Big Data Portal?

The format of our data and the criteria for our reports have been pre-defined. We no longer need to have debates about what we want to analyze or how often we need to look things up, which makes reporting clearer, more consistent and easier to manage. We can now compare results on a monthly or quarterly basis more easily, without depending on someone with particular technical knowledge to prepare the data. The portal’s visualization capabilities make it easier to present data to key stakeholders through graphs. So I’d say speed, consistency, and ease of use are some of the portal’s biggest advantages.

Visit North Star’s website to learn more about their work.

Written and edited by: Gloria Quintanilla, Chirppoint.
Photographer featured image: Quintin Mills
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