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Understanding the context of a health programme is important in interpreting evaluation findings and in considering the external validity for other settings. Public health researchers can be imprecise and inconsistent in their usage of the word “context” and its application to their work. This paper presents an approach to defining context, to capturing relevant contextual information and to using such information to help interpret findings from the perspective of a research group evaluating the effect of diverse innovations on coverage of evidence-based, life-saving interventions for maternal and newborn health in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and India.
We define “context” as the background environment or setting of any program, and “contextual factors”as those elements of context that could affect implementation of a programme. Through a structured, consultative process, contextual factors were identified while trying to strike a balance between comprehensiveness and feasibility. Thematic areas included demographics and socio-economics, epidemiological profile, health systems and service uptake, infrastructure, education, environment, politics, policy and governance. We outline an approach for capturing and using contextual factors while maximizing use of existing data. Methods include desk reviews, secondary data extraction and key informant interviews. Outputs include databases of contextual factors and summaries of existing maternal and newborn health policies and their implementation. Use of contextual data will be qualitative in nature and may assist in interpreting findings in both quantitative and qualitative aspects of programme evaluation.
Applying this approach was more resource intensive than expected, in part because routinely available information was not consistently available across settings and more primary data collection was required than anticipated. Data was used only minimally, partly due to a lack of evaluation results that needed further explanation, but also because contextual data was not available for the precise units of analysis or time periods of interest. We would advise others to consider integrating contextual factors within other data collection activities, and to conduct regular reviews of maternal and newborn health policies. This approach and the learnings from its application could help inform the development of guidelines for the collection and use of contextual factors in public health evaluation. 


Kate Sabot

IDEAS Research Assistant and DrPH student 2013-2016

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Professor Tanya Marchant

IDEAS Principal Investigator and Professor

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Dr Neil Spicer

Associate Professor

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Dr Della Berhanu

Assistant Professor

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Dr Meenakshi Gautham

IDEAS India Country Coordinator and Research Fellow

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Dr Nasir Umar

IDEAS Nigeria Country Coordinator and Assistant Professor

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Professor Joanna Schellenberg

IDEAS Co-Principal Investigator and Professor