Using Technology to Combat HIV/AIDS in Swaziland

This week is National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week and National Environmental Laboratory Professionals Week.  APHL is honoring the many individuals working public health and environmental laboratories around the world.  Stay tuned for blog posts this week featuring the work of many of those unsung heroes working to protect the public’s health.
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Computerized information systems make work easier in many fields, including laboratory practice. But can a laboratory information system (LIS) help make a dent in one of the world’s worst HIV epidemics?

Laboratory and health experts in the Kingdom of Swaziland are betting the answer is yes.

Swaziland, a geographically small, landlocked nation bordering South Africa and Mozambique, has been home to human inhabitants since at least the early Stone Age 200,000 years ago. Today, however, the country’s population of 1.2 million is seriously threatened by the highest HIV prevalence rate on the African continent. An estimated one of every four adults is infected with HIV, and many of those are co-infected with TB or multi-drug resistant TB, both of which are also highly prevalent.

Swaziland

Health experts know that HIV prevention, education, testing, counseling and treatment programs are essential to reverse such a daunting public health crisis. Swaziland has responded with a campaign to reduce HIV transmission by circumcising HIV-negative men aged 15-49, and with greatly increased access to testing at voluntary counseling and testing centers and other Ministry of Health (MOH) laboratories. Yet these efforts have been complicated and slowed by reliance on paper-based systems.

Marie-Claire Rowlinson, PhD, a former senior APHL global health specialist, said an electronic LIS “is important for quality of testing and therefore for the quality of patient services.” She continued, “It enables laboratory technicians to test samples more efficiently and with fewer errors in the testing process. For example, because the LIS is integrated with testing instruments, there are fewer manual transcription errors, and quality control procedures can be monitored more easily.”

All of this has a positive impact on testing quality, speed and volume. Technicians are able to spend more time generating potentially life-saving test results, rather than entering data by hand. And the test data can be retrieved in seconds.

Rowlinson added, “A common issue for the labs in Swaziland is that patients will get the same test two days in a row when they only need one, which wastes much needed resources. With a paper-based system, it is much harder to track what tests a patient is getting, but with an electronic LIS this can be monitored.”

Fortunately, the advantages of electronic information management will be coming to Swaziland Ministry of Health (MOH) laboratories soon. APHL completed a laboratory assessment in Swaziland last year and is assisting the MOH with development of an LIS strategic plan for the country. Previously APHL helped MOH stakeholders in the selection of an LIS software vendor.

In 2012, the new electronic LIS system will be installed in the national reference laboratory, the Mbabane Government Hospital National Reference Laboratory, and five other MOH laboratories. It is hoped that the new LIS system will eventually be installed in all 18 MOH laboratories, and the current stand-alone systems made interoperable to enable real-time data exchange.

“In addition to improving quality and expanding test volume, the LIS can be used to centralize data and support MOH decision making,” said Ralph Timperi, MPH, a senior advisor for laboratory practice and management at APHL. He explained, “You can put personnel data on a central database so you can see where your technicians are, their ages and education. You can determine whether you need to provide training for people in one location or if key people are nearing retirement.” He added, “You can store supply information and equipment information, so you know: Where is the equipment? How old is it? An LIS gives you the ability to accurately keep track of things in real time. That’s a very helpful thing.”

In the end, said Timperi, it all comes down to one critical trade-off that can indeed make a difference in a HIV epidemic:  “Putting out quality test results versus moving paper.”

 

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