Growth and challenges of health research in the WHO Africa Region: new analysis in the BMJ

This was cross-posted to my own blog.


I have always been devoted to the principle of evidence-based policy and decision making in public health, but I have taken a keen interest in the finer points of research and methodology since taking my current position as an epidemiologist (and contemplating the pursuit of a doctorate more seriously). Earlier this month, I spotted an article from BMJ examining the output of health research in the WHO Africa region from 2000 to 2014 (h/t to Dr. Ron LaPorte, professor of epidemiology at the WHO Collaborating Center at the University of Pittsburgh and co-founder of the Supercourse project). The article, entitled “Increasing the value of health research in the WHO African Region beyond 2015,” is a bibliometric analysis of the health research publications from the WHO Africa region indexed on PubMed; it analyzes the influence of various factors, including GDP, population, and health spending on the number and growth of published papers by country over the time period. The abstract reads:

Objective To assess the profile and determinants of health research productivity in Africa since the onset of the new millennium.

Design Bibliometric analysis.

Data collection and synthesis In November 2014, we searched PubMed for articles published between 2000 and 2014 from the WHO African Region, and obtained country-level indicators from World Bank data. We used Poisson regression to examine time trends in research publications and negative binomial regression to explore determinants of research publications.

Results We identified 107 662 publications, with a median of 727 per country (range 25–31 757). Three countries (South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya) contributed 52% of the publications. The number of publications increased from 3623 in 2000 to 12 709 in 2014 (relative growth 251%). Similarly, the per cent share of worldwide research publications per year increased from 0.7% in 2000 to 1.3% in 2014. The trend analysis was also significant to confirm a continuous increase in health research publications from Africa, with productivity increasing by 10.3% per year (95% CIs +10.1% to +10.5%). The only independent predictor of publication outputs was national gross domestic product. For every one log US$ billion increase in gross domestic product, research publications rose by 105%: incidence rate ratio (IRR=2.05, 95% CI 1.39 to 3.04). The association of private health expenditure with publications was only marginally significant (IRR=1.86, 95% CI 1.00 to 3.47).

Conclusions There has been a significant improvement in health research in the WHO African Region since 2000, with some individual countries already having strong research profiles. Countries of the region should implement the WHO Strategy on Research for Health: reinforcing the research culture (organisation); focusing research on key health challenges (priorities); strengthening national health research systems (capacity); encouraging good research practice (standards); and consolidating linkages between health research and action (translation).

In the discussion, there is some fascinating commentary on the challenges facing researchers in the research and the barriers to publication, as well as to making those publications available to other researchers in the field. Some of them are familiar and strike me as a common symptom of the complicated relationship between politics and (especially evidence-based) policy making:

Although there is clearly a need for improving the performance of health researchers on the continent, African health decision makers should use the available research evidence to guide policy, strengthen practice and maximise the use of resources in order to improve the welfare of their citizens. However, there appears to be a failure to apply available research evidence to improve the health of populations on the continent. This unfortunate situation may be related to the lack of sharing of research evidence for translation into policy and practice, a non-alignment of research conducted in African countries to national research policies and/or the non-existence of national health research policies with clearly defined priorities.

However, others are somewhat unique to Africa. Not of them are economic (though funding plays a major role), and the paper goes so far as to describe some of the challenges as “intractable”:

The difficulties in research, publication, editorial bias and information access facing Africa are profound and seem almost intractable. Another difficulty facing African researchers is dissemination of findings to other parts of the world. Most of the information published in African journals is largely not included in major databases. Access to technological tools, information access and other equipment and supplies to ease research work is not always possible.

I hope this will influence the wider debate on the future of aid and health spending in Africa. The call for a shift in funding and emphasis from technologically-focused solutions to health-systems strengthening and sustainability has gained momentum, and research and academic exchange is a crucial part of the latter.

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