Travelling numbers and broken loops: A qualitative systematic review on collecting and reporting maternal and neonatal health data in low-and lower-middle income countries

J Molenaar, Benova Lenka, A Christou, IL Lange, J van Olmen

Research output: Contribution to journalA1: Web of Science-articlepeer-review


Data and indicator estimates are considered vital to document persisting challenges in maternal and newborn health and track progress towards global goals. However, prioritization of standardised, comparable quantitative data can preclude the collection of locally relevant information and pose overwhelming burdens in low-resource settings, with negative effects on the provision of quality of care. A growing body of qualitative studies aims to provide a place-based understanding of the complex processes and human experiences behind the generation and use of maternal and neonatal health data. We conducted a qualitative systematic review exploring how national or international requirements to collect and report data on maternal and neonatal health indicators are perceived and experienced at the sub-national and country level in low-income and lower-middle income countries. We systematically searched six electronic databases for qualitative and mixed-methods studies published between January 2000 and March 2023. Following screening of 4084 records by four reviewers, 47 publications were included in the review. Data were analysed thematically and synthesised from a Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theoretical perspective. Our findings show maternal and neonatal health data and indicators are not fixed, neutral entities, but rather outcomes of complex processes. Their collection and uptake is influenced by a multitude of system hardware elements (human resources, relevancy and adequacy of tools, infrastructure, and interoperability) and software elements (incentive systems, supervision and feedback, power and social relations, and accountability). When these components are aligned and sufficiently supportive, data and indicators can be used for positive system adaptivity through performance evaluation, prioritization, learning, and advocacy. Yet shortcomings and broken loops between system components can lead to unforeseen emergent behaviors such as blame, fear, and data manipulation. This review highlights the importance of measurement approaches that prioritize local relevance and feasibility, necessitating participatory approaches to define context-specific measurement objectives and strategies.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101668
JournalSsm-population Health
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 2024


  • Complex adaptive systems
  • Health information system
  • Indicators
  • Maternal health
  • Neonatal health
  • Routine data
  • Systematic review


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