By Duncan Mlanjira
The Ministry of Health has lost important database that was collected since March this year after the server for the Health Management Information System (HMIS) crashed.
A notice from Secretary of Health, Dr. Charles Mwansambo dated October 28, says the HMIS internet platform for the Ministry, which was operating on DHIS2 server, experienced “an incident” on October 2 and in the process of maintenance and restoration, it was discovered that the backup database was corrupted, resulting in the loss of data and configuration work.
The configuration work involved new reporting forms, form updates, additional users, dashboards, indicators, applications amongst others — all being any work that was conducted from March to October 2.
“We have currently implemented standard operating procedures to guide performance of maintenance on the server,” he said.
“We have also engaged experts within the DHIS2 community for guidance and additionally consultations are ongoing on how the lost data and configuration work can be restored.
“We sincerely regret the inconvenience this has caused to system users, programs and our partners; we are working tirelessly to resolve this,” Mwansambo said.
An impeccable source in the health industry, said the database that has been lost are records mainly used for reference by medical staff that include patients’ history, medicine management, research among others .
The data that was being collected into the system that has crashed, according to our source, was from all referral hospitals, Queen Elizabeth, Mzuni, Kamuzu and Zomba.
The next stage of the process was to have all district hospitals mounted on the server that now has crashed.
The source said if someone from Blantyre was to fall ill in Mzuzu, the medical staff there could just log in the patient’s identity details and all his/her medical history would be displayed for easy treatment.
Asked if this important data can be retrieved, our source said it could be if the Ministry would engage the right experts, especially designers of the system.
“Chances are slim with our local expertise because we lack well trained and dedicated database management expertise,” said the source.
“If the Ministry’s contract with the designers of the system included service management, then that would be easy to re-engage them for this recovery job.
“Otherwise if such maintenance contract clause with the designers does not exist, the government should expect to pay through the nose.”
The source said, while it may not be so, he suspects the personnel that were working on the system weren’t up to the task in as far as data management expertise is concerned.
“Usually, ICT experts are categorized in specifically areas such as software, hardware, data management and others but you can find an expert in hardware insisting on handling data management issues instead of leaving it to experts of such,” he said.
One of the country’s top ICT companies, SPARC Systems’ Managing Director, Wisely Phiri said he was contacted by an official from the Ministry asking if they can use their skills to recover some data.
He said he discovered later on why the Ministry wanted SPARC’s services for when the issue of the loss of the data was posted on the Information & Communication Technology Association of Malawi (ICTAM) chat group.
“This is pathetic though,” Phiri said. “These are not the problems we should be experiencing in this age.”
When asked if SPARC could retrieve this data, Phiri said it all depends on what has happened as he doesn’t “have much information on what exactly happened”.
“But we have recovered a number of systems before where data was originally thought to have been lost,” he said. “Some of it have been for data that was deliberately shredded but we managed to recover it and then import the data into the database.
“That was one of the most difficult data recovery procedure we have done. I am not sure what [the Ministry of Health] have so far done after finding out that their data is missing.
“But if they are not using data experts they are likely making the problem worse and it’s becoming more unlikely that the data will be recovered afterwards.”
Phiri was confident that SPARC can assist the Ministry to recover the data just like what they have done before with other clients.
“It’s a job that we have done before for other clients. In this case, we have not been approached as such we haven’t done any assessment on what happened and if this data can be recovered.
“We have expertise in data recoveries and disaster recovery solutions.”
He said if SPARC was to be contracted to do the recovery job, they would eventually provide a solution based on the route cause analysis report and make recommendations which should help the client to avoid a repeat of the issue in future.