Improving health information systems during an emergency: Lessons and recommendations from an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone

Shefali Oza*, Kevin Wing, Alieu Amara Sesay, Sabah Boufkhed, Catherine Houlihan, Lahai Vandi, Sahr Charles Sebba, Catherine R. McGowan, Rachael Cummings, Francesco Checchi

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: The 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola epidemic highlighted the difficulty of collecting patient information during emergencies, especially in highly infectious environments. Health information systems (HISs) appropriate for such settings were lacking prior to this outbreak. Here we describe our development and implementation of paper and electronic HISs at the Sierra Leone Kerry Town Ebola treatment centre (ETC) from 2014 to 2015. We share our approach, experiences, and recommendations for future health emergencies. Methods: We developed eight fact-finding questions about data-related needs, priorities, and restrictions at the ETC ("inputs") to inform eight structural decisions ("outputs") across six core HIS components. Semi-structured interviews about the "inputs" were then conducted with HIS stakeholders, chosen based on their teams' involvement in ETC HIS-related activities. Their responses were used to formulate the "output" results to guide the HIS design. We implemented the HIS using an Agile approach, monitored system usage, and developed a structured questionnaire on user experiences and opinions. Results: Some key "input" responses were: 1) data needs for priorities (patient care, mandatory reporting); 2) challenges around infection control, limited equipment, and staff clinical/language proficiencies; 3) patient/clinical flows; and 4) weak points from staff turnover, infection control, and changing protocols. Key outputs included: 1) determining essential data, 2) data tool design decisions (e.g. large font sizes, checkboxes/buttons), 3) data communication methods (e.g. radio, "collective memory"), 4) error reduction methods (e.g. check digits, pre-written wristbands), and 5) data storage options (e.g. encrypted files, accessible folders). Implementation involved building data collection tools (e.g. 13 forms), preparing the systems (e.g. supplies), training staff, and maintenance (e.g. removing old forms). Most patients had basic (100%, n = 456/456), drug (96.9%, n = 442/456), and additional clinical/epidemiological (98.9%, n = 451/456) data stored. The questionnaire responses highlighted the importance of usability and simplicity in the HIS. Conclusions: HISs during emergencies are often ad-hoc and disjointed, but systematic design and implementation can lead to high-quality systems focused on efficiency and ease of use. Many of the processes used and lessons learned from our work are generalizable to other health emergencies. Improvements should be started now to have rapidly adaptable and deployable HISs ready for the next health emergency.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100
JournalBmc medical informatics and decision making
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2019


  • Data collection
  • Disease outbreaks
  • Ebola virus disease
  • Electronic health records
  • Health emergencies
  • Health information systems
  • Health records
  • Medical records


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