South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)
Building a healthy nation through research and innovation


Health Systems Research Unit


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Catherine MathewsDirector: Catherine Mathews

Senior Management Team
Arvin Bhana, Emmanuelle Daviaud, Tanya Doherty, Ameena Goga, Simon Lewin, Marian Loveday, Catherine Mathews, Rotating scientific staff representative

Our mandate 
The main purpose of the Unit is to conduct health systems research in order to develop health systems, improve the organisation, efficiency, effectiveness of health systems, and increase the impact of health systems on population health and well-being. Health systems research attempts to understand and evaluate how health systems function and how they can be strengthened, including how to develop and implement policies and programmes in ways that strengthen, rather than undermine, health systems1. The need to build capacity for health systems research is acknowledged in the recent recommendations of the National Health Research Committee2.

What we do
We conduct health policy, systems and service research utilising mixed methods to inform policy and to improve the equity, effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery. Our Unit focuses on strengthening community-based, school-based and health facility-based platforms, to promote health, and to prevent and treat disease. For this purpose, we conduct in-depth, systems-related work in the following areas:

  1. Maternal, child and adolescent health
  2. Sexual and reproductive health and mental health
  3. Chronic infectious diseases, such as TB/DR TB and HIV/AIDS, and non-infectious diseases, such as diabetes
  4. Social Policy, Nutrition and Health

Across these focal areas, the Unit uses 3 cross-cutting approaches:

  1. Process and impact evaluation
  2. Economic research to guide investments in health systems, including human resource investments
  3. Knowledge synthesis and knowledge translation

We have innovative expertise in a range of methodologies / processes including:

  • Cluster randomised controlled trials
  • Process evaluations
  • National surveillance
  • Systematic reviews of qualitative and quantitative evidence
  • Economic evaluations and human resource planning
  • Qualitative research
  • Heath systems and other policy and guideline development
  • Respondent-driven surveillance methods
  • Simulated client assessments
  • Photo-voice participatory methods
  • Evaluations of mHealth interventions

The Unit has performed strongly over the last three years across five key areas:

  • conducting research that addresses high priority health systems problems
  • generating funding to conduct high quality research
  • publishing the findings of this research in high impact, peer reviewed journals
  • building health systems research capacity, and
  • generating and sustaining national and international research collaborations, including with national and provincial departments of health in South Africa.
  1. WHO. Health Policy and Systems Research. A Methodology Reader. Geneva: World Health Organization. 2012.
  2. Mayosi BM, Mekwa JN, Blackburn J, et al. Strengthening research for health, innovation and development in South Africa: proceedings and recommendations of the 2011 National Health Research Summit. Pretoria: National Health Research Committee, 2012.
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Last updated:
29 February, 2016
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