Health information technology in primary health care in developing countries: a literature review


Technologies de l'information et soins de santé primaires dans les pays en développement : une revue de la littérature


Tecnologías de la información sanitaria en la atención primaria en los países en desarrollo: una revisión de la literatura



Elaine Tomasi1 ; Luiz Augusto Facchini; Maria de Fatima Santos Maia

Federal University of Pelotas, Avenue Duque de Caxias 250, Pelotas, 96030-002, Brazil




This paper explores the debate and initiatives concerning the use of information technology (IT) in primary health care in developing countries. The literature from 1992–2002 was identified from searches of the MEDLINE, Latin American and Caribbean Health Science Literature Database (LILACS), Cochrane Library and Web of Science databases. The search identified 884 references, 350 of which were classified according to the scheme described by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). For the analysis of advantages, problems and perspectives of IT applications and systems, 52 articles were selected according to their potential contribution to the primary health-care processes in non-developed countries. These included: 10 on electronic patient registries (EPR), 22 on process and programmatic action evaluation and management systems (PPAEM) and 20 on clinical decision-support systems (CDS). The main advantages, limitations and perspectives are discussed.

Keywords: Primary health care; Information technology; Information systems/utilization; Decision support systems, Clinical/utilization; Medical records systems, Computerized/utilization; Education, Distance; Telemedicine/utilization; Review literature; Developing countries (source: MeSH, NLM).


Le présent article examine les débats et les initiatives concernant l'utilisation des technologies de l'information dans le cadre des soins de santé primaires dans les pays en développement. Les articles publiés en 1992-2002 ont été identifiés au moyen d'une recherche dans plusieurs bases de données - MEDLINE, LILACS (Latin American and Caribbean Health Science Literature Database), Cochrane Library et Web of Science. La recherche a fourni 884 références, dont 350 ont été classées selon le système décrit par l'Organisation panaméricaine de la Santé. Pour l'analyse des avantages, des limites et des perspectives des applications et systèmes informatiques, 52 articles ont été sélectionnés pour leur contribution potentielle aux processus de soins de santé primaires dans les pays non développés : 10 concernaient les dossiers médicaux informatisés, 22 les systèmes d'évaluation et de gestion des processus et de l'action programmatique et 20 les systèmes d'aide à la décision clinique. L'article présente une discussion des principaux avantages, limites et perspectives de ces applications et systèmes.

Mots clés: Soins santé primaire; Technologie de l'information; Système information/utilisation; Système informatique aide décision clinique/utilisation; Dossier médical informatisé/utilisation; Enseignement à distance; Télémédecine/utilisation; Revue de la littérature; Pays en développement (source: MeSH, INSERM).


En este artículo se analizan el debate y las iniciativas relacionadas con el uso de las tecnologías de la información (TI) en la atención primaria en los países en desarrollo. Se buscaron publicaciones del periodo 1992–2002 a través de MEDLINE, de la Base de Datos de la Literatura Latinoamericana y del Caribe en Ciencias de la Salud (LILACS), de la Biblioteca Cochrane y de la base de datos Web of Science. Se localizaron 884 referencias, 350 de las cuales se clasificaron conforme al sistema descrito por la Organización Panamericana de la Salud (OPS). Al objeto de analizar las ventajas, los problemas y las perspectivas de las aplicaciones y los sistemas de IT, se seleccionaron 52 artículos de acuerdo con su contribución potencial a los procesos de atención primaria en los países no desarrollados. Esa cifra se desglosa así: 10 artículos sobre los registros electrónicos de pacientes, 22 sobre los sistemas de evaluación y gestión de procesos y acciones programáticas, y 20 sobre los sistemas de apoyo a las decisiones clínicas. Se examinan las principales ventajas, limitaciones y perspectivas.

Palabras clave: Atención primaria de salud; Tecnología de la información; Sistemas de información/utilización; Sistemas de apoyo a decisiones clínicas/utilización; Sistemas de registros médicos computarizados/utilización; Educación a distancia; Telemedicina/utilización; Literatura de revisión; Países en desarrollo (fuente: DeCS, BIREME).




In health care, especially in developed countries, the use of different types of information technology (IT) has progressed considerably since the beginning of electronic patient registration, leading to improvements in the interfacing and fusion capabilities of a large variety of computer and telecommunication technologies. Such evolution can be attributed partly to the peculiarities of the health-care sector — namely, its scope, its status as a large market for computer businesses, and its need for facilities for information storage and management, improvements in quality of care, and expenditure control, in both the public and private sectors.

The health-care systems of developed countries have generally been in existence for at least two decades longer than those in developing countries and have been accumulating experience in the use of such technologies, especially in primary health care, which has provided relevant lessons regarding the use of IT in the health-care system as a whole. The computerization of medical records in hospitals and health clinics; the use of the Internet for communication and information exchange; the development of magnetic cards for user identification; electronic scheduling systems for appointments, examinations and hospital admissions; and computerized protocols for diagnosis and treatment support are just a few examples. Health IT has facilitated access to health literature, both to online journals, books and databases, and offline to informational CD-ROMs, that support practising professionals.

A recent review of the literature on the computerization process in basic health care between 1980 and 1997 summarizes in its title the current situation, i.e. "a descriptive feast but evaluative famine" (1). The authors pointed out the lack of research on the impact of IT on the health status of the population, and the methodological limitations in the design of the studies published so far.

In Brazil, as in other developing countries, structural deficiencies due to the current economic situation have led to considerable deficits in social policies — including those related to public health care. Changes in demographic and epidemiological profiles, in urbanization and in the level of industrialization have created a need for new models of health care. Such models attribute an increasing level of importance to primary health care, the strengthening of which is considered central to the improvement of health-care coverage (2, 3).

The goal of the present review is to explore the debate and initiatives concerning the use of IT in primary health care in developing countries.



Identification of publications

Publications were identified by an initial generic search using words from any database field (i.e. words from titles, keywords and abstracts) after which all keywords yielding relevant publications were listed. Some of the search terms used were:

  • database management systems AND primary health care;
  • health information AND primary health care;
  • IT AND primary health care;
  • information systems AND primary health care;
  • software AND primary health care; and
  • software AND ambulatory care information systems.

Searches were performed for publication dates ranging from 1992 to 2002, and data sources included MEDLINE, Latin American and Caribbean Health Science Literature Database (LILACS), Cochrane Library and Web of Science. Some additional relevant studies were identified using a demonstration version of EMBASE and from the web site www.hi-europe.info.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Duplicate references were excluded, as were references without abstracts, those not specifically related to health, and those that were not concerned with health IT. Publications with abstracts were classified according to the PAHO criteria (Table 1) (4). From the PAHO classification, the three categories most closely related to primary health-care practices were selected, i.e. systems for facilities, decision-support systems and electronic patient registration. The decision-support systems were subdivided into two groups: clinical decision-support (CDS) systems and process and programmatic action evaluation and management (PPAEM) systems. The systems initially considered as belonging to the facility category were later reclassified as belonging either to electronic patient registries (EPR) or to PPAEM.



A further selection of abstracts was performed, including those related to the development and/or evaluation of IT within the scope of primary health care, which emphasized their potential contribution to health-care evaluations. Papers included at this stage were assigned to the following categories: benefits, barriers to implementation and improvement requisites.



The search yielded a total of 884 publications (Fig. 1). Of these, 534 (60.4%) were excluded (references that did not include both an abstract and full text (331); those that were duplicated between databases (14); those with no mention of any kind of health IT, beyond opinion articles, editorials and essays on generic issues related to the subject (139); and publications dealing solely with technical specifications for the writing of software, not necessarily for the health sector (50)).



According to the PAHO classification (Table 1), most of the publications identified (27.7%) described the development and/or implementation of information systems at health facilities, including hospitals, clinics, physician's offices and diagnosis and treatment support centres. These information systems were used for data storage, processing, recovery or diffusion purposes. This group also included articles about systems designed for the management of clinical and administrative information within a specific facility or between different facilities.

The next group (23.1% of the publications identified) was related to decision-support systems that facilitate clinical and administrative decision-making by means of interactive dialogues. These include clinical diagnosis, individual monitoring applications, facility and institution management applications and "virtual health libraries". The third group (18.9%), were publications dealing with electronic data exchange, including general infrastructure designed to allow interaction and information exchange between the users and services and between systems themselves, by means of the Internet and electronic mail. The next group dealt with support systems for educational activity, directed towards distance-learning and improvement of teaching ability in the education and training of health-care professionals (14.0%). Electronic patient registries were the subject of 10.6% of the publications. These are systems that integrate and promote access (from a single site to multiple locations) to collections of clinical and administrative data concerning the patient, based on a distributed database and including different means of support, such as intelligent optical card technology.

The final group comprised publications related to telemedicine such as support systems for diagnosis teleconferences, transmission of high-resolution images and vital signs for long-distance diagnosis and robotic telesurgery. These subjects accounted for 3.1% of the publications, and medical imaging systems designed to store, process, recover and transmit medical images for 2.6%.

Following a detailed analysis of the 350 abstracts included in Table 1, 135 were excluded. These were publications concerned with data exchange, educational activities, and telemedicine or medical imaging, or because of language problems (three). Of the 215 remaining references, 163 were not concerned with the evaluation of technology (Fig. 1).

We attempted to obtain the full texts of the remaining 52 publications: 45 of them were successfully located, corresponding to 13% of the total. We then proceeded to the identification of advantages, problems and potential solutions related to the use of computerized systems in primary health care. From the reference lists included in the articles, and further searches using other sources, seven more relevant publications were located, giving a total of 52.

Electronic patient registries

When compared to manual registration, the main advantages of electronic patient registries (EPR) are greater accuracy (5) and a higher proportion of correct information (6, 7); time saved in locating information (8); more economical use of financial resources; and greater ease and speed of recovery of patient data (12).

Several articles reported on the limitations of such technologies, highlighting the resistance and difficulties of using EPR among health-care professionals, especially physicians (13–15). Emphasis was also placed on aspects related to confidentiality of information and respect for privacy, the need for continuing training and support for human resources (16, 17), and the lack of automatic standardization and codification of the data entered (14).


Table 02


Most authors agreed on the need for a gradual replacement of paper-based registries with electronic ones, as well as on the need for user-friendly interfaces, and for at least minimal training programmes (18, 19).

Process and programmatic action evaluation and management systems

The first group of process and programmatic action evaluation and management (PPAEM) systems identified were those concerning patient referral and "counter-referral activities" (i.e. the return of the patient to his or her physician after specialist consultation) both between different levels of care (e.g. to specialists or hospitals) and, for example, for the electronic return of the results of laboratory examinations. Their main advantages are reliability (7), speed (8) and the optimization of available resources (7).

The second group of applications were those designed for the monitoring of patients linked to specific health programmes, such as immunization at mother and child clinics, antenatal care and diabetes programmes. This monitoring was mainly carried out by means of "notices" generated when patients missed scheduled appointments, and the issuing of pre-appointment reminders. The advantages reported included reductions in registration errors, identification of absentees, integration of prevention and control activities, and detection of risk factors and complications (8, 20–22).

A third set of publications was concerned with the analysis and extraction of selected information from electronic patient registries, allowing the identification of risk factors and groups of at-risk patients and the obtainment of care-quality indicators and their comparison between different health units (23, 24). The authors agreed that such systems could assist with evaluations of morbidity and patterns of drug prescription (25), allow managers to monitor compliance with conduct and norms regulated between different levels of care (26), and optimize the prevention and early detection of risk factors (27).


Table 03


One limitation is the lack of studies evaluating the impact of the use of these systems on quality of care (11). Another drawback is the lack of standardization among the different systems which reduces the usefulness of automatically generated indicators (28). When data entry is retrospective, there is a tendency to transfer the deficiencies of a manual registry to the computerized registry (29). It is often necessary to develop additional system tools, such as, for example, codification of the reasons for appointments (30).

Clinical decision-support systems

This category of products includes mainly those that function as computerized protocols for patient management, both for diagnosis and treatment, including electronic prescription and requests for laboratory tests. These may be rule-based systems, cognitive and simulation (Bayesian) systems, or tree-decision systems that could include active patient participation.

Problems such as hypertension and cardiopathies in general (31, 32), asthma (33–35), and depression (36, 37) are among the most cited examples of clinical decision-support (CDS) systems. Such health problems, together with prevention programmes, constitute the main reasons for utilization of primary health care, making the adoption of standardized protocols that can be optimized with the support of IT easier (34). Positive experiences have been reported to result from implementation of these systems (38), including increases in physician adherence to standardized therapeutic plans (32, 33, 39), cost reduction (33), and easier standardization and regulation of requests for secondary and tertiary health care and for examinations (40), thus reducing variability between services.

From an administrative point of view, it is possible to obtain greater adhesion to public policies (41). Standardized programmes for the early detection of diseases would tend to have greater diagnostic value thus contributing towards the promotion of equity, and the reduction of complications and costs related to more complex treatments (42).


Table 04


As with the other technologies reviewed, the limitations were related to the low adhesion rates among health-care professionals, the great variety of systems available which hindered evaluation of their validity and reproducibility, and difficulties in standardization and integration with other applications (43).



Given the rapid progress in health IT in developed countries and in spite of the differences in infrastructure and health facilities, it is useful to extract some relevant lessons for developing countries, especially those that are trying to design health informatics policies for primary care services. MEDLINE, LILACS, the Cochrane Library and the Web of Science were the main sources of published papers, which mainly reported the experiences of developed countries. One possible gap in the present review is related to the fact that papers from non-indexed journals (i.e. those not registered in international databases, such as MEDLINE) could not be identified. We tried to minimize this potential bias by including both papers that reported the experiences in developed countries and experiences in developing countries.

Even with the aid of the PAHO classification, a detailed examination revealed that a single paper may simultaneously encompass several categories, such as electronic patient registries, clinical and management decision-support systems, and process and programmatic action evaluation tools. A further limitation was that many references did not provide abstracts and full text (37%), a possible source of selection bias. However, we consider that the most important papers were included because their abstracts were available from indexed journals. Many papers were focused solely on opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of the use of IT, and lacked any evaluation of their concrete application to health care. This may be partly attributed to the search strategy adopted, which was based on widely inclusive keywords: almost 200 of the publications found were not related to application of IT to the health sector.

There is a consensus concerning the usefulness of computerized systems in primary health care, especially for promoting greater efficiency in management processes. Although studies evaluating the impact of such technologies on indicators of health and quality of care are still rare, most authors agree that positive effects attributed to the implementation of the different systems and applications can be maintained during routine use and improved through monitoring. With regard to EPR the main lessons are related to system security, especially the maintenance of privacy and confidentiality. The interconnection between different systems and software is another relevant issue. It would be imperative to adopt standards for vocabulary, contents, images, objects and communication tasks.

The finding of a low level of adhesion among physicians to protocols for computerization in primary health care is almost ubiquitous. Although the reasons have yet to be explained, it is possible that the autonomy regarding clinical decisions — a paradigm of traditional medical practice — must be made to coexist with regulated and more cooperative activities, although this will be no easy task. Furthermore, a substantial number of the articles reviewed stressed the need for continued motivation and training for all team members as an important requisite for the success of any initiative in this area (19). This lesson would be very relevant to the establishment of IT in primary health-care systems. It may be pertinent here to quote the reflections by Branco (2) on the significance of training, that is, the amplification of knowledge: "… knowledge of the logic behind health information production and flux must be provided to all persons involved, and should include the understanding of the goals of the systems to which they have access, and of the utilization possibilities of the information produced …"

Another consensual aspect was the difficulty of finding adequate methods for evaluation, given the enormous variety of applications and contexts in which IT is used. Similarly to the situation for medicinal drugs some 40 years ago, IT has not yet been regulated to ensure its safety and efficacy. Thus, every facility or organization, in order to fulfil its particular needs, "orders" specific products to provide a solution to specific problems, reproducing the specialists' view of health in their administrative and evaluative demands. The results of specific evaluations lack external validation, because health services are extremely variable in terms of population seen, team composition, qualifications, motivation and extent of computerization. This hampers comparability and generalizability (37). In addition, the complexity of clinical and organizational management processes is often underestimated (44).

In the consideration of CDS systems in particular, emphasis has been placed on quality and safety concerns. The main drawbacks of such systems include the lack of consensual standardization for a number of conditions, the probably negative effect on the physician–patient relationship (for example, the perception that computers take over the physician's role), the difficulty in addressing complex conditions, the profusion of different systems with different formats, and the need for training and support (1).

The most important lesson comes from the trends in adoption of national health information systems. Countries such as Australia, Canada and England have recently been heavily involved in implementing large information systems in an unprecedented effort towards standardization and the incorporation of new technologies (48–50). Scotland is another example; it maintains a single information system that functions in 75% of its services, thus facilitating the comparison of data and the extension of benefits resulting from its improvement (26). Brazil is currently planning a national health information policy that should lead to a significant improvement in public health care, especially in primary health-care services. If the developing countries learnt the important lessons provided by the developed countries, they would be able to reduce the time and resources required to increase IT utilization.

Conflicts of interest: none declared.



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Submitted: 30 July 2003 – Final revised version received: 9 May 2004 – Accepted: 19 May 2004



1 Correspondence should be sent to Dr Tomasi (email: etomasi@epidemio-ufpel.org.br).



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