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From Finding Hidden Homicides to Addressing Health Disparities, the Global Grants Program is Improving Health Data

Q&A with Lara Tabac, Ph.D., Director of Vital Strategies’ Global Grants Program

Vital Strategies

Q&A with Lara Tabac, Ph.D., Director of Vital Strategies’ Global Grants Program

Many countries worldwide seek to strengthen the collection, analysis and use of high-quality data in their public health decision-making. Without essential data about the most pressing public health challenges affecting the population, governments instead rely on “best guess” methods to guide policy and program budgets. 

That’s where the Global Grants Program comes in—a fundamental component of Vital Strategies’ role in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Data for Health Initiative. The program’s three rounds of grants have supported governments in improving public health through addressing information gaps and improving data processes—leaving them with better informed public health policies and investments. The program has made great strides since the inaugural grant in March 2019, with a team including: Ana Gutierrez, Program Associate; Jeremiah Martin, Senior Program Manager; and Carlie Congdon, Technical Advisor for CRVS Projects. To learn more about the program, we sat down with its director, Lara Tabac.

Q: The Global Grants Program is a recent addition to the Data for Health portfolio at Vital Strategies. What was the main catalyst for launching the program?

The Global Grants Program was launched to support low- and middle-income countries that are not part of the current Data for Health portfolio. Through a competitive process, the program provides funds to government partners to implement discrete projects, which are led by government and local experts and work to improve systems to collect, analyze and use data for public health decision-making.

Clockwise from top left: Lara Tabac, Director; Ana Gutierrez, Program Associate; Jeremiah Martin, Senior Program Manager and Carlie Congdon, Technical Advisor for CRVS Projects

Q: What are some of the ways that Global Grants Program resources have been used by country partners? 

We’ve seen some really interesting uses. A team in Peru, for example, developed a guide to conducting burden of disease studies and trained epidemiologists from each regional department on how to develop these at the subnational level. Because of the emphasis on data collection in the training sessions, participants uncovered regional differences that could be used to shape public policy. Final results from each departmental assessment will be presented to national authorities, with the goal of tailoring the National Insurance Plan’s list of covered medical conditions to fit regional needs—and thereby protect the health and well-being of Peruvian citizens. The guidance developed from this work has been published in Spanish for regional use and is currently being shared with project leads conducting similar work in Paraguay.

 

Another example comes from Ghana, where our partners are filling a data gap related to road traffic and violent deaths (such as homicides). Because these are two areas of mortality that are likely to occur outside of a health facility, the team is equipping emergency responders with the tools to collect and correctly report on mortality data. As of the end of June, emergency responders identified nearly 400 deaths, capturing cases that might have otherwise gone unreported within the existing channels, and contributing to more complete mortality data at the national level. It is especially impressive that this initiative has continued despite the multiple disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Q: How does the Global Grants Program differ from the other Data for Health programs? In what ways does your team’s work complement or collaborate with the other programs?

The Global Grants Program was designed to follow the lead of the countries we work in, expand on lessons learned from previous public health intelligence work, and promote regional collaboration, such as the sharing of best practices and technical expertise, among countries addressing similar issues.

 

The initial round of program funding supported countries that had transitioned from priority status in the Data for Health initiative. These projects expanded on previous program work, ensuring the sustainability and scaling up of achievements where appropriate. Working with Data for Health partners, the second round of funding targeted a new crop of countries on projects that address long-standing data gaps and systems improvement. The goal was to make data as accessible to decision-makers as possible, providing critical input into addressing health challenges through policy development, resource deployment and measuring success.

Q: What are some of the successes you’ve seen with the first two rounds of Global Grants Program funding?

A critical component of our program is recognizing that our in-country partners are the experts, and that they are intimately familiar with the needs of their local health systems and communities. We have seen that funding locally led and managed projects results in sensible and tangible deliverables that fit community needs. The local teams are the driving force behind the work.

 

In the last few months, we have witnessed our country teams achieve important data transformations under urgent and challenging circumstances. In Brazil, our partners working to refine cause-of-death data were able to quickly pivot and incorporate COVID-related mortality. Likewise, in Ecuador, the team capitalized on Global Grants Program training on Iris software, to quickly capture and report on excess mortality during the pandemic. Our partners in Ghana have adapted a complicated system of cause-of-death reporting into a streamlined e-notification system—valuable in both pandemic and everyday conditions.

Q: The newest round of Global Grants Program funding is focused on COVID-19 response. How can a boost of seed funding fortify a locality’s data capacities in both the short and long term? 

It is an understatement to say that COVID-19 has been tremendously challenging for national health systems. It has also exposed holes in data collection systems and processes in most countries. For instance, we know many countries are missing data from COVID-19 deaths outside the formal health system. How can we help them capture the whole picture, particularly in remote areas?

 

The focus of this current round of funding is to provide immediate support to governments to address the urgent gaps, with an eye toward ensuring that the grant implementation responds to the core issue, has government buy-in, and has the potential to have a lasting impact on the country’s data systems. It’s essential to look at this investment with a sustainability lens, as we move to a new normal and prepare for future outbreaks.

The Data for Health Initiative is a global effort supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It provides technical assistance to low- and middle-income countries worldwide to improve public health data systems at the national level, including improving civil registration and vital statistics systems, maximizing the use of data to enhance public health policymaking and decision-making, establishing and strengthening national cancer registries and more. Vital Strategies serves as an implementing partner.