Using data to work medical miracles

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —

Last week, Rwanda’s health minister, a trained pediatrician, won a major global health award called the Roux Prize. Awards can be a dime a dozen, so I want to put this one in perspective:

Between 1990 and 2013, life expectancy in Rwanda increased by about 15 years and rose by roughly 12 years. These would be remarkable gains for any country, but for an impoverished country that experienced a modern-day genocide, it’s nothing short of miraculous.

In the mid-1990s, Rwandans weren’t thinking about how they could live longer, healthier lives. They were thinking about how to survive. The Rwandan genocide claimed as many as one million lives in a 100-day period of 1994, ripping the country apart along ethnic and tribal lines, and leaving tremendous physical and emotional scars across Rwanda.

One of those scars was a wrecked health system with almost no infrastructure, health workers, or actual medicines. Dr. Agnes Binagwaho played a key role in rebuilding that system. She was working as a pediatrician in France during the genocide, and returned to her country in 1996 with kilos of medicines in her bag to provide care to those in desperate need.

After directly caring for patients as a physician, Dr. Binagwaho served as executive secretary of the National AIDS Control Commission, overseeing implementation of the US-financed PEPFAR program and an ongoing Rwandan struggle against HIV/AIDS, which has been declining as a cause of death since the mid-2000s but remains a leading national killer.  She became permanent secretary of the Ministry of Health, and in 2011, she was appointed minister of health.

Dr. Binagwaho’s tenure has been marked by continued health progress and a nearly obsessive use of data to guide her ministry’s investments. Most of these data come from an international collaborative effort called the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) and evidence from the Ministry’s own data-gathering efforts. Data have been used to support investments in clean cookstoves to improve indoor air quality, and a campaign to decrease deaths in the first few weeks of life through improving education, equipment and training in neonatology at hospitals throughout the country.

Last week, Dr. Binagwaho was awarded the Roux Prize, a US$100,000 award for turning evidence into health impact.  The Roux Prize is given by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington – the lead institution of the GBD and a Minerva Strategies client – and is the world’s largest award for evidence-based public health achievement.

“Whether you are in the capital of Kigali or out in a rural hospital, health policy decisions are being made based on data in Rwanda,” said Tom Achoki, IHME Director of African Initiatives. “The Honorable Minister has made it a priority not only to educate the Ministry in how to produce and analyze quality data, but how to use data to effectively and efficiently to overcome Rwanda’s health challenges.”

I’m inspired and amazed by Dr. Binagwaho’s achievements. If you’d like to learn more about her story, check out the video.