Building a Global Health Information Network

By Myron S. Cohen, MD

April 2011 — When we think about improving health in the developing world, many of us think about things such as access to clean water, nutrition, childhood vaccinations and access to basic care. Building health care workforce is crucial to any global health strategy. People will always get sick. And we need trained people to care for them.

Here’s the thing about being a health care professional: you never really finish your training. There is always new research, a new standard-of-care, a new drug to treat a particular condition, and diseases so rare they were barely covered in medical school.

Health Sciences Libary entrance

The Health Sciences Library in spring

Here at UNC, we have easy access—quite literally, at our fingertips—to the most powerful health tool there is: information. PubMed, the standard reference database in health care, boasts “more than 20 million citations for biomedical literature,” and we can access the full-text of many of them right from our laptops, iPads and smartphones. That information comes to us courtesy of the University’s world-class Health Sciences Library which serves all five health disciplines.

Unfortunately, access to health information is a real problem in the developing world. More than ten years ago, researchers in the British Medical Journal argued that “access to reliable health information for health workers in developing countries is potentially the single most cost effective and achievable strategy for sustainable improvement in health care.” [1]

In 2004, we partnered with the UNC HSL to establish the UNC Project medical library at Tidziwe Centre, our research, care and training site in Lilongwe, Malawi. With access to PubMed and other electronic resources through the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers, the library serves clinical and research staff at UNC Project, as well as students and faculty on rotation from UNC. It is also an information hub for the growing number of Malawians who are earning degrees in the health sciences.

Chancellor Thorp being shown the electronic resources at Tidziwe Library. Also pictured, from left: Innocent Mofolo, Francis Martinson, and Bernard Chilombe, librarian.

This library has been a terrific success. I am not exaggerating when I say that hardly a week goes by when I am not asked how we could replicate the library in Malawi at other international sites where UNC researchers and students are working to improve health.

Recently the Health Sciences library launched a Global Initiative, which is committed to forming new collaborative partnerships to support UNC’s international presence and to improving the global scope of the library’s collection.

The library also recognizes the need to address the global information gap and the Global Initiative is also exploring creative ways to make health knowledge more universally available.

The initiative is under the direction of Mellanye Lackey, who is also the library’s liaison to the Gillings School of Global Public Health. As I write this, Mellanye is in Uganda, where she is exploring a partnership with Mulago Hospital in telemedicine, tele-education, and electronic health information. She is traveling with the UNC pediatric team, and providing updates on the trip on their blog.

The HSL vision for 2020 is to be “a leader in the global health information network,” and the Global Initiative is a critical step toward achieving that vision.


Each month, Dr. Cohen writes a “Global Health Update” column for the UNC Global Newsletter.  We reprint the item here.

One Response to Building a Global Health Information Network

  1. Elizabeth says:

    That’s really neat and wonderful to hear. Keep up all the good work!

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