Improving Maternal and Child Health Through Research Using Human-centered Design and Open-source Data.

Improving Maternal and Child Health Through Research Using Human-centered Design and Open-source Data.

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A female patient and her doctor stand together as they discuss the test results on the clipboard held by the doctor.

This article was written by Suzanne M. Simkovich MD, MS.


Ahead of the 76th World Health Assembly, MedStar Health researcher published recommendations in the BMJ to utilize human-centered design and open-source data to prevent non-communicable diseases in women of reproductive age.


The United Nations established maternal and child health as a global priority in 2000. Despite progress, a significant gap exists in the burden of non-communicable diseases affecting women of reproductive age and children. 

Our recommendations include endorsing the global health community to implement efficacious interventions using modern techniques such as human-centered design and open-source data to help women stay healthier before and after they become pregnant. 

Globally, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are responsible for the death of 19 million women each year. The most common of these NCDs that affect maternal health include:

Traditionally, women of childbearing age are treated for NCDs for the first time when they become pregnant, as this is the first interaction with the healthcare system during the reproductive period. Prevention before pregnancy would offer the best outcomes, but efforts often fall short, especially in areas with fewer resources. 

Our research considered how modern solutions might be able to help reduce the rates of hypertension (high blood pressure) and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Hypertension is a leading risk factor for heart disease, impacting about 32% of women, while hyperglycemia caused by diabetes occurs in about 8% of women. These diseases are associated with long-term complications in mother and offspring. The World Health Organization considers these conditions as
“best buys,” meaning that a relatively small investment could improve the health of many people.

The role of human-centered design.

Our research suggests that common treatments may be designed without patients’ needs and access in mind. Some methods require access to technology, like smartphones, which are less available in low- and middle-income countries and may introduce language and technology barriers. 

We found that human-centered design can improve implementation rates for NCD prevention. The human-centered design prioritizes the values and needs of the end user, resulting in more manageable, effective treatments patients are more likely to adopt, thereby reducing the impact of NCDs.

Key characteristics of human-centered design include:

  • Understanding people and their needs
  • Engaging stakeholders early and throughout treatment design 
  • Addressing interactions between care systems

These tactics have been used successfully in other healthcare settings to help patients adapt to new technologies, but not widely in low and middle-income countries. 

Leveraging open-source data for personalized preventive care.

Open-source data is freely available online to be shared and combined with other data. We use large databases in research to understand public and community health. 

Researchers can analyze open-source data to recognize patterns and develop or optimize health guidance specific to a population or condition. When we focus on the patients and use human-centered principles, the information can tailor preventative treatment design.

For instance, algorithms can determine precise dosing strategies to help insulin users know how much to take. Research showed that these automated systems delivered better, more consistent dosing

Moving towards a holistic approach to prevent NCDs.

Preventing NCDs will require expanded training programs and capacity building. Funders like the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases are designing new educational programs, and global projects are underway to standardize open-source data so scientists can make better use of these information troves. 

These efforts are part of the work needed to close preventable maternal and child health gaps. Combining open-source data and human-centered design strategies while building local capacity to deliver care can help more women and children live healthier lives.

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