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Networking in eHealth - A learning evaluation of the IDRC Strengthening Equity through Applied Research Capacity building in eHealth (SEARCH) programme

In 2017 the Canadian IDRC concluded a six-year programme supporting research organisations in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lebanon, Peru and Vietnam in the development and testing of solutions to strengthen health systems through information technology. The programme under the title ‘Strengthening Equity through Applied Research Capacity building in eHealth’ (SEARCH) set out four objectives: (i) strengthen, redesign and improve health system processes; (ii) support key health system operations essential for equity, (iii) generate evidence for decision-making, and (iv) increase social participation, accountability and transparency. The results of six SEARCH studies were published in December 2018 in a supplement of the Journal of Public Health.

From 2014 to 2016, hera accompanied the SEARCH programme with a learning evaluation which, among other objectives, observed and documented the pattern and intensity of networking among the seven research teams. While South-South cooperation is a core modality of IDRC work, it is usually managed by programme officers or by institutions that are commissioned and supported to maintain research networks. But internet technology has profoundly changed the way institutions are collaborating. Networks are expanding seemingly without moderators or managers. Where better to examine this than among a group of researchers in eHealth that spans the globe with studies that were selected under a set of common objectives?

The result of hera’s network analysis is published in the journal supplement. SEARCH had established an active network for cross-project learning and information exchange among the research teams using traditional modalities of IDRC-managed networking. The teams met in workshops and discussed common challenges and experiences. They participated actively in a web-based training on gender analysis. IDRC programme officers used site visits and feedback on progress reports to link project outputs to overarching programme objectives. But the expectations in terms of cross-project learning through autonomous networking were only partially realised. Only two teams, in Bangladesh and Kenya, established a relatively close direct collaboration. Their research themes were thematically similar, both working on national frameworks for eHealth policy, and both worked in English.

The evaluation team drew three lessons about research networking and cross-project learning from the SEARCH experience:

  • The integration of eHealth in health systems raises many issues. There are common questions, for instance on privacy, data security and the interactivity of technological platforms. However, the questions raised by the application of information technology in health are too diverse to provide a common platform for information exchange. Only when there are commonalities in the research themes, as for instance between the studies in Kenya and in Bangladesh, the research teams will use opportunities to spontaneously exchange information.
  • Networking among research teams can increase the quality and the applicability of health systems research and promote knowledge translation. Networking may happen spontaneously when a platform is provided, but it is more active and potentially useful when it is supported by resources that keep the network alive. All seven research teams wanted to exchange information, but they wanted organised venues such as workshops or webinars.
  • Spontaneous networking across language barriers is difficult. The barriers can be overcome by a network manager such as IDRC in the case of the interactions between the francophone, hispanophone and anglophone research teams in SEARCH workshops and webinars. But it is not evident that it happens spontaneously without such facilitation.

Read the full article in the Journal of Public Health, Volume 40, Issue suppl_2, 1 December 2018, Pages ii12–ii15 - Networking in eHealth research: results of the IDRC SEARCH program evaluation