By Kaaren Mathias, Asha George and Devaki Nambiar
Last week, on October 15 2019 we held the first Health Systems Global (HSG) Asia regional meeting in New Delhi, India. We aimed to foster regional networking around health systems research, practice and policy and to enable skill-building among emerging researchers, with a focus on the current call for abstracts for Health Systems Research symposium to be held in Dubai next year. It was scheduled to coincide with the COPASAH Global Symposium running the same week in the capital of India. The steering group of the HSG Asia regional meeting was made up of people involved in HSG Thematic Working Groups active in the Asia region including Emerging voices, Evidence to Action, SHAPES and the Private sector.
We decided to focus on how the abstract submission and scholarship process could maximise participation of people who are often left out of global level meetings. “How do we prioritise participation from people who are early career and practitioners?” was our first question. The next was “What about ensuring participation from those who live outside of large cities and have less opportunity to join meetings?” We circulated the abstract call widely through e-lists that included practitioner e-groups as well as research linked e-groups. Over one hundred abstracts were received from the region, with 24 prioritised for presentation and 20 for scholarships, accommodated by a small seed grant provided by HSG for this purpose. As well as assessing abstracts submitted for technical merit and relevance to the themes of the HSR2020 meeting, the criteria we used for assessing travel scholarship eligibility were:
- Work role/ study role relevance to health policy and systems research (HPSR)
- Number of years since completing last qualification (higher score for lower number of years)
- Residence in a town or city with less than 1 million people (higher score for rural or smaller town)
- Primary affiliation with either non-profit organisation or non-academic institution.
Through a process of networking and varied communication efforts, the meeting convened a vibrant gathering of seventy practitioners, researchers and policy makers on a pleasant Delhi day. There were two plenary speakers:
- Dr Vandana Prasad, a practitioner and activist working on child health and tribal nutrition in India underlined the importance of action research, on ethical grounding and wide representation of disciplines and stakeholders at the table;
- Mr Rajeev Sadanandan, former bureaucrat in the health sector in Kerala who had recently transitioned into a researcher role reflected on his leadership experiences in decision-making, noting the constraints in linking evidence to policy and also raising the challenge of bringing in comprehensiveness in practice linked to HPSR.
The lightning talk format of presentation in the morning by twenty four people from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Nepal allowed an energetic and compact overview of research and learnings. “It was hard to distil my findings into a talk of less than five minutes, but I was surprised how much I could actually cover in that time,” said Chinta Rupasinghe from a district in Sri Lanka who presented on a multi-sectoral project to clean up the coastal environment.
The afternoon session involved working on abstracts in small groups to consider how to strengthen their research skills in writing abstracts, as well as how to frame their research to resonate with the HSR2020 themes. “I hadn’t given enough focus on how my research linked to the conference themes and it was useful to understand ways to make that more explicit within the abstract content,” said Lila Basnet from Dharan, Nepal who examined social determinants among people presenting at a hospital with a febrile illness. Other participants appreciated ideas on how to craft the abstract title and content to be more eye-catching and linked to symposium themes.
We closed with an interactive discussion about HSG, as well as a world café exercise led by Dr Asha George, Chair of HSG Global, that enabled further brainstorming and discussion about priorities and processes for HSG Asia. Key ways of further building the field included opportunities to meet and develop skills related to HPSR in preparation for Dubai but also, independent of this, in relation to priorities in the region. Volunteers enlisted to be focal points across college campuses to provide more visible engagement with other health research and activists networks active in the region. Before we said our goodbyes, we agreed on both formal and informal ways of staying in touch to encourage further collaboration with policy makers and practitioners and to mentor emerging researchers to ensure more responsive and robust HPSR. Despite everyone being pulled in many directions with the exciting and sometimes concomitant COPASAH sessions, it was a rich and energising day of presentations, questions, conversations and reflections affirming HPSR in Asia. There is optimism about what may be achieved from this starting point.