From April 9-11, 2018, Community Partners International (CPI) and the Health Information Systems Working Group (HISWG) co-hosted the first Eastern Border Public Health Research Forum in Mae Sot, Thailand, with support from Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, USA. The forum brought together ethnic and community-based health organizations delivering health services in eastern Myanmar and international advisors with expertise in public health research. Together they explored public health research approaches and methodologies, and strategized priority areas for future research in eastern Myanmar.
Health services in eastern Myanmar have been decimated by decades of conflict. Joint research by HISWG and CPI published in 2015 indicated that one in seven children in this region do not live to see their fifth birthday. Just over the border in Thailand, this indicator drops to one in 83. However, this region is also home to an active and extensive network of ethnic and community-based health organizations providing essential health services to conflict-affected, hard-to-reach and underserved communities. The community-based organizations attending the forum oversee a workforce of more than 2,500 health workers embedded in communities across eastern Myanmar. This workforce represents a crucial resource to support the expansion and improvement of essential health services in this region.
The forum is the first step in the development of collaborative public health research for eastern Myanmar that focuses on community priorities and needs. By connecting local and international resources and expertise, this initiative seeks to empower community-based health providers in eastern Myanmar to use best practice research methodologies to generate the data required for evidence-based public health programming and advocacy.
After an introductory session on public health research, participants analyzed and discussed a series of research papers presented by community research teams recently graduated from the Master of Public Health program at Khon Kaen University. On the second day, participants explored research questions, methods and data. They learnt about the Community Ethics Advisory Board (CEAB) housed at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, and discussed how the CEAB could help to strengthen community input and oversight of research. Participants also explored approaches to applying research findings for evidence-based public health policymaking.
On the final day of the workshop, participants worked together in a consensus-driven process to rank public health research priorities for eastern Myanmar. After several rounds of discussions and voting, five key priorities were selected: drinking water quality and safety; mental health; illegal drug use; malnutrition of children under five years of age; and care-seeking behavior and the quality/safety of pharmaceuticals at private/unlicensed pharmacies.
The momentum achieved during the forum will continue in several ways. Alongside the identification of research priorities, valuable research links were forged between community-based health providers and international institutions committed to supporting and cooperating on participatory research. An online forum has been established where members can access resources for research, ask questions, coordinate and strengthen connections, and receive updates on research funding opportunities.
As part of the next phase of this initiative, participating organizations at the forum have an opportunity submit public health research concept notes to a competitive process, and the most robust concepts will receive funding and mentorship from CPI and Queen’s University to carry out a full research project.