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How training health workers online benefited the COVID-19 response offline

With the changing dynamics of the COVID-19 response, country health systems have been struggling to continuously keep their health workers informed. This includes new vaccination protocols and ensuring continuation of essential health services.

Challenges that prevent regular training for frontline health workers include the high cost of classroom-based training processes, disruption of service delivery, the lack of resources (such as infrastructure and human power), and the necessity of updating training materials with the newest clinical protocols and guidelines. However, the basic use of digital channels, such as SMS and app-based platforms, can address some of these challenges. Although mobile health (mHealth) is a vastly growing field, leveraging digital channels specifically for frontline health worker training is not as common. The current literature reveals an uncoordinated and highly varied approach to capacity building for health workers using digital tools. However, now more than ever, it is essential for health workers to be abreast of the most accurate and reliable information on COVID-19.

UNICEF is implementing a comprehensive health response to COVID-19, focusing on control and mitigation of the collateral impacts of the pandemic on routine health services, promoting COVID-19 vaccine uptake and limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. A particular priority area is to ensure that community-based health services are maintained, which is essential for limiting COVID-19 transmission and ensuring the continuation of promotive and preventative primary health care services, especially health services for children, women, and vulnerable populations. UNICEF and partners have therefore been exploring opportunities to strengthen the learning systems for health workers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontline health workers, in particular community health workers, can help ensure continued access to preventative, curative, and supportive services, particularly in hard-to-reach areas and for vulnerable populations.  

The Digital Health & Information Systems unit at UNICEF HQ, with the help of funding from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, US Centers for Disease Control, and the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has sourced and digitized a health worker training content library. Using openly-licensed training content made available by organizations such as the World Health Organization, Stanford Center for Health Education, and the COVID-19 Digital Classroom Consortium, the content has been adapted to be deployed on a variety of digital channels. This includes SMS, Internet of Good Things, social media messaging apps (i.e., WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram), and app-based Virtual Learning Environment solutions, such as Moodle for remote health worker training.

The benefits of the Remote Health Worker Training (RHWT) initiative can reach far beyond providing online training on COVID-19 only. In Papua New Guinea, for example, the RHWT initiative is being used to support the roll-out of mSupply (a logistics management information system). Courses were added onto Moodle to train health workers not only on the COVID-19 response but also to train them on digital literacy and misinformation – a topic Papua New Guinea is immensely struggling with that contributes to vaccine hesitancy.

Last month, UNICEF and Johnson & Johnson presented on Mapping Digital Health Technologies in Countries for the COVID-19 Response at the Global Digital Development Forum. To learn more about this work, watch the recording of the webinar here.

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