The 2nd IASTED African Conference on
Science and Technology - A Platform for Sustainable Development
September 3 – 5, 2012
Technical and Socio-technical Approaches to Health Informatics in Africa
AbstractHealth informatics can be viewed as a purposeful collection of interrelated components, including information and communication technologies (ICTs), which work together to achieve better healthcare. Health informatics is therefore a discipline at the intersection of information science, computing and healthcare. Health informatics tools include not only computers but also clinical guidelines, formal medical terminologies, and information and communication systems.
Systems that include ICT software generally fall into two categories: technical computer based systems and socio-technical systems.
Technical computer-based systems are systems that include hardware and software components, but not procedures and processes (e.g. televisions, mobile phones, most personal computer software). Individuals and organisations use technical systems for some purpose, but knowledge of this purpose is not part of the system. In the ICT domain health informatics are almost always defined in this context: to encompass the capturing, processing and modelling of health-related information using computing equipment. It deals with the resources, devices, and methods to optimize the acquisition, storage, retrieval and use of information in healthcare. It can be applied to support the whole spectrum of healthcare, from nursing, clinical care, dentistry, pharmacy, public health, occupational therapy, through to biomedical research, but it almost always have a ‘technology push’ perspective: “we have this wonderful piece of technology that is going to solve all your problems...”.
But to be of real value health informatics should have a broader scope, namely that of socio-technical systems. Socio-technical systems include one or more technical systems but, crucially, also include knowledge of how the system should be, or can be used to achieve some broader objective. Socio-technical systems have specified operational processes, people are inherent parts of the system, are governed by organisational policies and norms, and may be affected by environmental constraints such as cultural influences, resource poverty, and national and international laws and regulations. Beyond a mere focus on devices and technology, a socio-technical systems’ approach requires a human factors perspective. Human factors practises employ knowledge about human behaviour, abilities and limitations in the design of interactive systems consisting of people, technology/equipment and the environment in which they operate to ensure the systems’ effectiveness, efficiency, safety and satisfaction of use. Socio-technical systems can be leveraged in a constructive way to simultaneously achieve technical excellence and quality of life. It follows a ‘technology pull’ approach where a technology solution is designed that will support and fit the specific environment, the people involved, and the tasks, goals and needs of the people.
In this talk I will highlight the advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches and use examples to illustrate their applicability and adaptation to the African healthcare context.