7.7. Implementation steps for successful data and system integration

The purpose of this step-by-step DHIS2 Implementation Guide is to provide a methodology for implementers to create and support a DHIS2 integration scenario. The guide is based on the best practices and lessons learned. The guide advocates for a country driven, iterative, and agile approach that begins with collecting user stories and functional requirements. The guide is intended as a framework that can be adapted to the specific context of each country. The content describes specific examples for each step detailing user stories, data specifications, job aids and checklists to guide the use of the reference implementation software. The basic structure, including the 6 steps, are basedon the OpenHIE implementation methodology:

Step 1: Identify Stakeholders and Motivations for Improved Facility Data

Step 2: Document Facility Registry Specifications and User Stories

Step 3: Set Up Initial Instance

Step 4: Identify Gaps & Iterative Development via User Testing

Step 5: Scaling the Registry Implementation

Step 6: Provide Ongoing Support

In addition to these steps related to interoperability, it is also interesting to reference back to some of the general DHIS2 implementation experiences and best practises given in the sections on Recommendations for National HIS Implementations and Setting Up a New Database. A typical DHIS2 implementation approach which is also vital for interoperability projects is a participatory approach. This approach stresses to include right from project start a local team with different skills and background to assume responsibility as soon as possible.

7.7.1. Step 1: Define strategy, stakeholders and data usage objectives

In a first step, the objectives of the integration project will be defined. As with every technology project, there should be a clear consensus on strategic and functional objectives. Technological innovation and feasibility should not be the sole driving force but rather a clearly defined organisational goal. Therefore this step is also intended to answer the question: “Why do we want to connect systems or integrate data from different sources with DHIS2?”

On a practical level, this leads to questions on the data integration approach, such as:

  • Do you want to eliminate paper forms or even eliminate data sets that are redundant or not needed anymore?

  • Can you integrate the (aggregate) data into DHIS2?

  • Can you integrate the detailed (e.g. patient level or transactional) data into DHIS2, using DHIS2 tracker functions?

  • If you want to create a data exchange connection between DHIS2 and another system, how do you define ownership and responsibilities?

Activities to answer this question are described below and will lay the groundwork for an DHIS2 interoperability project.

7.7.1.1. Identify Stakeholders and Motivations

It is in the nature of interoperability projects to have more than one stakeholder. Stakeholders from different areas need to agree on a common system approach, for example the team responsible for the national HMIS (e.g. the M&E department or Planning Department) and the Logistics Department in case of an LMIS implementation. These two main areas often have sub-divisions, e.g. in the logistics area the procurement unit, the warehousing unit, the transport unit. In addition, stakeholders from disease specific programs will have their own regimens and commodity managers. In addition to these local actors, international partners (agencies, donors, iNGOs, consultancies) are often also involved in the decision making process.

Therefore it´s interesting to look at the main motivations of the stakeholders and how to mitigate risks resulting from potential diverging interests.

  • Central MoH Departments such as M&E&Planning often are the main stakeholders for a standardisation of indicators and IT Systems

  • Central IT departments have a general interest over (often locally controlled) technology choices and ownership, hardware and software purchases. They are often dealing with network and hardware issues but lack experience dealing with complex web-based architectures and data exchanges.

  • Specialized disease programs are often under pressure to deliver very program specific indicators, both for their own management but also responding to donor driven approaches. They may also feel more comfortable controlling their proper IT system to be sure their needs are prioritized.

  • Specialized functional areas (such as Human Resources, Logistics, Hospital Management) are often in a sandwich position, having to cater to the information needs of several different stakeholders, while trying to achieve operational efficiency with limited resources.

By identifying who is interested to provide or utilize the data, the lead implementers can start to form a project team to inform the design and implementation. One method for characterizing stakeholders involves grouping interested parties by their functional roles. The existing infrastructure and procedures are also important to understanding governance and curation options. Understanding the stakeholders and their corresponding systems is a critical first step.

7.7.1.2. eHealth System inventory

It is important to get a clear view on the overall IT systems landscape. This can help make sure that interoperability investment is done to strengthen the main systems and that the investments contribute to a simplification of the system architecture. For example, if the system inventory shows that there are a lot of redundant functional systems, e.g. more than 10 different logistics systems or modules in a country, the interoperability project should try to contribute to a mid or long-term rationalization of this situation. This could mean to participate in a national consensus finding process to identify the most future-proof solutions, identify national “champions” for each speciality and develop a roadmap for aligning these systems or data and removing underutilized or redundant systems.

Also in this context it is interesting to analyse whether simple indicators can be collected and managed in DHIS2 itself and how this can complement logistics system improvement efforts (as this is later explained in an LMIS example). Once the stable and sustainable systems have been identified, planning for a data exchange with DHIS2 can start.

7.7.1.3. Explore Opportunities and Challenges

The motivations driving an implementation can be detailed by the perceived opportunities or challenges that stakeholders face. This might include the desire to share data across systems related to health facilities for supply chain management, monitoring and evaluation, health service delivery and many other systems. User stories and use cases will be documented in depth during Step 2, but a high level vision of motivations to engage with partners is also needed.

7.7.1.4. Organisation and HR

Clear national policies on data integration, data ownership, routines for data collection, processing, and sharing, should be in place at the start of the project. Often some period of disturbance to the normal data flow will take place during integration, so for many the long-term prospects of a more efficient system will have to be judged against the short-term disturbance. Integration is thus often a stepwise process, where measures need to be taken for this to happen as smoothly as possible.

Country example: Ghana CHIM

  • Stakeholder cooperation: The Ghana Centre for Health Information Management (CHIM) has a clear position towards vertical programs and other partners with proper software initiatives. CHIM establishes DHIS2 as an attractive data collection option, supporting other GHS stakeholders to connect to DHIS2 and to work on a common interoperability strategy, evolving DHIS2 according to stakeholder needs. This also includes data sharing agreements .

  • Strong sense of system ownership: CHIM has a strong determination to build up the necessary know-how inside the CHIM team to configure and maintain the system. The CHIM team consists of Health Information Officers, that combine Public Health and Data Management skills.

Also, having clearly defined system maintenance and update procedures can certainly help to manage interoperability.

Country example: Ghana CHIM

As an example, in the case of Ghana DHIS2, a clear yearly system update cycle is in place: Towards the end of each year, new indicators are created and the corresponding paper forms are issued. Staff will receive training and is prepared for data entry. The new form for EPI data was included in this update cycle and EPI staff was prepared for data entry as part of the process. This systematic procedure allows GHS to quickly respond to the needs of stakeholders such as the EPI Programme and accommodate their data and reporting needs with a limited and predictable investment. It puts CHIM in a position to contribute to the rationalization and simplification of the national Health System Architecture, gradually integrating the data management for more vertical programs, both on the side of data entry and analytics.

A key principle for HISP is to engage the local team in building the system from the very beginning, with guidance from external experts if needed, and not to delay knowledge transfer towards the end of the implementation. Ownership comes first of all from building the system and owning every step of this process.

7.7.2. Step 2: Document Specifications and Requirements

  • Collect existing metadata

  • Document data specifications

  • Document user stories

7.7.3. Step 3: Carry Out Specifications and Identify Gaps

  • Implement the specifications

  • Identify and piroritize incomplete user stories

7.7.4. Step 4: Iteration and User Testing

  • Agile and iterative development

  • User testing

  • Collect, reconcile and upload data

7.7.5. Step 5: Scale-Up

  • Confirm user roles and responsibilities

  • User training

  • Critical integrations

7.7.6. Step 6: Ongoing Support

While during the implementation phase a temporary support structure should be available, afterwards a permanent support structure needs to be set-up. The main challenge is to have clear responsibilities. In an ideal situation, we are dealing with two stable systems that each have already their own clearly defined support structure.

However in reality some recurring challenges may have to be dealt with: Many Public Health System are undergoing dynamic developments, leading to changes in data collection needs or calculation of indicators.

Interoperability tends to be a tedious technical and organisational charge. All of the three described initiatives have consumed a considerable effort of qualified resources to activate APIs. In addition, with each new release of any involved system, data flows require re-testing and if necessary adaptations. To be successful these implementation projects typically have to go through a series of complex steps, such as the agreement on an interoperability approach embedded in the national eHealth strategy, the definition of data standards and sustainable maintenance structure, and attaining a stakeholder consensus on data ownership and sharing policies. There can be some long term consequences when data and systems are knitted together - it creates new roles, tasks and categories of labour which need to be planned for (metadata governance, complex system administration, boundary negotiators, etc.). A solution could be to discuss the new responsibilities beforehand, assigning them to job descriptions, teams and specific positions.

7.7.6.1. Metadata responsibility

Another important area is that of metadata governance, particularly in the scenarios of secondary use of data. In a stand-alone set-up, metadata, such as facility or commodity codes can be managed without much consideration of other stakeholder´s needs. But in an interoperability environment, metadata changes will have effects outside of the individual system. Metadata governance can be highly formalised through registries or more manual through human processes.

In order to determine the appropriate approach, is it useful to estimate the expected metadata maintenance effort and the consequences of unsynchronized metadata across different systems. In the case of the LMIS/DHIS2 integrations, there are potentially thousands of facility identifiers that could go out of synch. However normally, facility identifiers do not change often since the physical infrastructure of most public health system is relatively constant. As to the commodities, although regimes and priority drugs may change over time, the number of datasets is relatively small: The commodity list of a program often contains less than 20 products. Therefore often it can be practical to update a commodity manually, and not invest into an interoperability solutions such as an automated metadata synchronization.