The state of international collaboration for health systems research: what do publications tell?

Miguel A González Block
Health Research Policy and Systems 2006 August 23, 4: 7

AIM: International collaboration for health system development has been identified as a critical input to meet pressing global health needs. North-South collaboration has the potential to benefit both parties, while South-South collaboration offers promise to strengthen capacity rapidly and efficiently across developing countries. There is an emerging trend to analyze the fruits of such collaboration. This paper builds on this trend by applying an innovative concept-based bibliometric method to identify the international scope of collaboration within the field of health policy and systems research. Two key questions are addressed: to what extent are papers comparing developing countries as against reporting on single country studies? To what extent are papers in either case being produced by researchers within their respective countries or through North-South or South-South collaboration?

METHODS: A total of 8,751 papers published in Medline between 1999 and 2003 with data on health systems and policies in developing countries were identified and content-analyzed using an innovative concept-based search technology. A sample of 13% of papers was used to identify the corresponding institution and countries covered. The sampled data was then analyzed by income group.

RESULTS: Papers with an international, cross-country focus account for only 10% of the total. Just over a third of all papers are led by upper middle income country authors, closely followed by authors from high income countries. Just under half of all papers target low income countries. Cross-country papers are led mostly by institutions in high income countries, with 74% of the total. Only seven countries concentrate 60% of the papers led by developing country institutions. Institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom concentrate between them as many as 68% of the papers led by high income countries. Only 11% of all single-country papers and 21% of multi-country studies are the product of South-South collaboration. Health Financing is the topic with the greatest international scope, with 26% of all papers in the topic. Topics such as Costing and Cost Effectiveness, Finance, Sector Analysis and Insurance, regardless of their national or international scope, are led in 38% to 54% of cases by high income authors.

CONCLUSION: While there is modest health systems research capacity in many developing countries for single country studies, capacity is severely limited for multi-country studies. While North-South collaboration is important, the number of international studies is still very limited to produce the kind of knowledge required to learn from experiences across countries. The fact that lead institutions as well as study countries are concentrated in a handful of mostly middle income countries attests to great disparities in research capacity. However, disparities in research capacity and interest are also evident in the North. It is urgent to build cross-country research capacity including appropriate forms of South-South and North-South collaboration.

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