Moving on from paper: Using tablets to collect electronic data in low resource settings

News article 3 Jun 2019

Collecting health data in low- and middle-income countries is largely conducted using paper-based forms. In fact, since 2006, researchers from the Centre for Maternal and Newborn Health (CMNH) has used paper-based questionnaires and surveys on a monthly or quarterly basis to collect data in more than 1000 healthcare facilities across 11 low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

However, the development and increased availability of reliable technology means that electronic tablets could now be used for electronic data collection even in low resource settings. To test their potential usability, the CMNH team piloted using electronic tablets to collect data in four LMICs. They first collected electronic data during a healthcare facility assessment study in Ghana. After further developing their methodology and tools, they then used electronic data collection in a multi-country, cross-sectional study to measure ill-health in women during and after pregnancy (maternal morbidity), in India, Kenya and Pakistan.

Their experiences and lessons learned from both studies have been published in BMC Health Services Research:

The healthcare facility assessment study in Ghana demonstrated the feasibility and acceptability to healthcare providers of using electronic tablets to collect data from seven healthcare facilities.

In the maternal morbidity study, electronic data collection proved to be an effective way for healthcare providers to document over 400 maternal health variables in 8530 women during and after pregnancy in India, Kenya and Pakistan. Although the tools were complex, no significant problems were found with collecting the data in any of the settings and the data collectors generally liked using the tablets to collect the required information.

Fiona Dickinson, Research Assistant at the Centre for Maternal and Newborn Health and lead author on this study:
“Our experiences show that using electronic data collection is an effective way to collect research data from healthcare facility registers and from patients during health consultations. It made data collection, transfer and processing easier and faster in many ways and was preferable to many of the healthcare providers.

However, there were a number of potential issues to consider with using tablets to collect data, including issues around the availability of electricity supply and internet connection, security of  valuable equipment and the need for additional training before data collection. To ensure successful electronic data collection and transfer between settings, we recommend that thorough preparation is key,  particularly relating to tool design, training data collectors, local internet access and device security.”