MD: Congratulations Dawn on being nominated for contributor of the month! You’ve been involved with the project for several years, but some people may not yet know much about you. Tell us a bit about yourself.
DS: Thanks Michael, I really appreciate the honor. I come from Indianapolis, Indiana, the state that most people around the world only know as “one of those states in between Washington DC and California”. However for just over a year now, I’ve made my home in Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills.
I earned a Bachelors of Science in kinesiology (the study of human movement) and graduated from Indiana University’s athletic training program in back in 2006. If you’ve ever seen an injured football (soccer) player on the field and medical staff run out to assess the injury, well that’s what I used to do — at least until I took a few courses for a public health minor, which changed everything. In May 2008, I finished a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree with a concentration in social and behavioural sciences. Under the mentorship of one of my professors, combined with my growing interest in exploring the world and cultural factors that impact health behaviours, my graduate career developed into a global health focus.
These days, I’m working in the Rwanda Ministry of Health’s eHealth Department as an implementation lead and program manager for the Rwanda Health Information Exchange (RHIE) initiative, under a contract to Regenstrief Institute. Our project tries to improve healthcare delivery through implementation of a health information exchange that allows healthcare providers to easily save and access patient information for specific care services.
MD: Sounds like your minor really became the “major” focus in your life. With a background in public health, I suppose it makes sense that you’d find a project like OpenMRS interesting. When did you first hear about us?
DS: I first heard about the project back in 2010 when I stumbled across OpenMRS.org in search of opportunities in global health informatics. It turned out that one of the collaborating organisations that co-founded OpenMRS, Regenstrief Institute, was based in my hometown of Indianapolis, and even better, OpenMRS had a connection with AMPATH in Eldoret, Kenya, where I spent time working as an MPH graduate student in 2007. What a small world! Long story short, I applied for a position of project coordinator at Regenstrief and was able to start working on the OpenMRS project in April 2010. One of the first major activities in the community was guiding the formation of a 509(a)(3) indpendent non-profit organization to support OpenMRS.
MD: The new non-profit organization is really going to be a valuable asset to the community and will allow us to grow much faster than we already have, so that’s a huge contribution. What are you doing with OpenMRS these days? What projects or initiatives do you find particularly interesting or exciting? Are there other types of projects you’d like to work on within OpenMRS if you had the right chance?
DS: Rather than helping to organize the daily activities of the OpenMRS community, I’m now working with health centers in Rwanda’s Rwamagana District that use OpenMRS. As part of the RHIE initiative, we utilize OpenMRS as our medical record system at the point of care. That means that clinicians enter data directly during patient consultations. The OpenMRS data then communicates to the interoperability layer and information is stored to the various HIE registries. We actually have an OpenMRS training for clinicians coming up in a few weeks to help clinicians familiarise themselves with the system and train them to use OpenMRS as an integrated component of their clinical workflow.
MD: That’s really exciting work. A health information exchange (HIE) is something that really allows a country’s health system to be more efficient and effective, and we’re always excited when people adopt OpenMRS as part of them. It sounds like you’re not directly involved with OpenMRS in your daily work though, is that correct?
DS: That’s right. I wouldn’t say that my work in global health is directly related to OpenMRS, but I still find time to contribute to the project, by helping to organize the logistics and coordination for the annual Implementers Meeting. The main reason why I stay involved is because I’ve made a lot of friends in the community, and I enjoy organising such an exciting event each year that brings the community together. It’s like a yearly family reunion at this point, with an opportunity to meet new people each year and share the global health informatics work that we all do in our respective parts of the world.
MD: Well, we’re certainly lucky to have you on board as our conference co-chair again this year. The OpenMRS Implementers Meeting has been around several years, and you’ve been involved with planning the event for the past several years now. What has changed since you’ve been involved? What do you think the event in its current form has to offer people who are interested in perhaps attending?
DS: It’s crazy to look back at both the evolution of my role in the Implementers Meeting and the conference itself since I first attended as a participant in South Africa, during OMRS10. What changed over the last three years? On a personal level, I took on the coordination role of the Implementers Meeting at the start of OMRS11. I lost a lot of sleep that first year in planning, but we had a great conference team including you and Renee Orser, and we all worked hard and learned much from the process. Those documented “lessons learned” made planning for OMRS12 and OMRS13 much more efficient. It’s interesting because OMRS11 also proved to be a pivotal time for the Implementers Meeting, and two key features came out of that.
For starters, the annual meeting evolved into a stronger community-based model where teams could propose to host the conference in their hometowns and showcase their amazing work. Prior to OMRS11, all the previous Implementers Meetings were held in South Africa, but with the success of the OMRS11 in Rwanda, the community and our conference staff asked who else wanted to host the Implementers Meeting. Since that time, local planning teams in the Philippines and Kenya took leadership to organize the Implementers Meeting in their respective countries. The other significant feature from OMRS11 in Rwanda are the site visits where participants travel to health centers in country to see how, when, where, and for what care services (HIV, antenatal care, TB, etc.) clinicians used OpenMRS. If you ask me, site visits are the key feature of the conference. So now with this model of community ownership and applying to be the host country, participants may have a greater likelihood of participating due to a rotating geographic location.
The Implementers Meeting is a great experience for people who are just becoming interested in OpenMRS. The number one question I received from the OpenMRS community since 2010 was always the same: “How is OpenMRS being used in some specific setting?” With the event’s site visits, we provide that intimate opportunity for interested individuals to see how, where, and for what care services OpenMRS is being used. The Implementers Meeting also allows that high bandwidth and caffeine-induced setting for implementers, end users, developers, policy makers, government officials, and just interested persons to talk to each other, learn valuable lessons from each other, and collaborate. As a bonus, most people finally get to meet individuals from the mailing lists whom they’ve talked to for ages. Shaking hands or giving hugs is that final human component that really connects the OpenMRS community.
MD: That really captures the spirit of our implementers meetings perfectly. We’re really grateful for everyone involved in pulling them together, including you. Your involvement over the past several years shows that there’s always opportunity for people do make contributions to OpenMRS other than writing code. What would you recommend for people — especially non-programmers — who are interested in getting involved in the community?
DS: I don’t write code, and I don’t have any intention of writing code. I’m much more concerned about what OpenMRS means for the end users and the patients than the minute technical details of how things work. That being said, the different roles I’ve had in OpenMRS and different contributions I’ve made, go to show that you don’t need a computer science degree to contribute to the greater good of the community. If you’re interested to make contributions to OpenMRS, consider your strengths — whether they be logistics, technical writing, clinical expertise, etc. — and never hesitate to reach out to the implementers mailing list or individuals in the community to ask what you can do to make contributions. From my past experiences, it’s common to be a little nervous about posting to mailing lists. But the truth is, there are many other people in your same position who may be hesitant to speak up, and on the other side of that, there are just as many implementers and developers in the community who need your specific skillset to help move their projects forward. We really hope you’ll join us!
MD: Excellent advice, and I agree, we’re always looking for more talented and dedicated people to join our community, whatever their background. Thanks again for your time, Dawn, thanks for your contributions, and congratulations.