York U researchers map vital organizations for global health challenges

Woman typing on a keyboard
Woman typing on a keyboard
Steven J. Hoffman
Steven J. Hoffman

Researchers at York University have identified the most important organizations around the world that contribute to health and would need to be mobilized quickly in the event of an international health emergency like a pandemic.

Using Internet-based algorithms, researchers at the University mapped the global health system, developing the most comprehensive and transparent list to date of organizations and stakeholders working to address global health challenges. The list they have developed is a critical tool not only to help mobilize organizations globally to deliver healthcare on the ground but also to ensure efforts are not duplicated.

“Think about an emergency situation. If a pandemic happens, we want to be able to quickly mobilize the full range of resources available in the world,” says Steven J. Hoffman, professor in the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, Faculty of Health and Osgoode Hall Law School. “That will include governments and international organizations, but it will also include the many non-governmental organizations that are not necessarily working in an organized fashion. By systematically identifying who is in the global health system and what they do, it means we can be empowered to start coordinating this effort and saving people’s lives around the world.”

Hoffman, who led the study, says the comprehensive list includes 203 organizations that focus on improving health in at least three countries.

“Over the past few decades there has been a proliferation of organizations that are working to improve health outcomes around the world,” says Hoffman. “When you have so many organizations, we need to make sure efforts are not duplicated and conflicts don’t happen. But first we need to understand who they are and to have a common language so that we can better understand the global health sector.”

In the study, researchers utilized the network structure of the Internet to identify organizations that might be working in this space and then determined whether their primary intent is to promote global health. Hoffman’s team started with the World Health Organization’s website and used an algorithmic approach to identify similar websites from other organizations. They looked for similar websites in three different ways: those that had similar text content; those that connected to the World Health Organization’s website through hyperlinks; and those websites that people visit after Googling “World Health Organization” and other global health terms.

The study tested the analytical helpfulness of a definition of the global health system through a network mapping exercise that examined the interconnected nature of websites representing organizations in the global health system.

The study also showed an overwhelming presence of health organizations in high-income countries, including more than half in the United States. Cities such as Washington D.C., New York and Geneva had a higher proportion of identified health organizations than elsewhere.

The global health system has faced significant expansion over the past few decades, including continued increase in both the number and diversity of organizations operating within it, says Hoffman. However, without a stronger understanding of what the global health system encompasses, coordination of organizations and resources to address today’s global health challenges will not be possible.

The study is published in Globalization and Health.