Pan American Health Organization

Using Online Meeting Software to Collaborate on Addressing Health Issues throughout the Americas

December 14, 2006

Collaboration technologies can have a positive effect on the bottom line when used to augment face-to-face meetings. Our interview with Bob Rodrigues of the Pan American Health Organization spotlights how the multinational group uses the Elluminate Live! online conferencing tool to increase the num-ber of people able to attend important meetings.


The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is an international public health agency with more than 100 years of experience in working to improve health and living standards of the countries of the Americas. As a technical organization of the United Nations, PAHO predates the UN’s 1946 founding by more than 40 years.

The organization, which is part of the World Health Organization, was created in 1902 as a technical agency of the Organization of the American States, the world's oldest regional organization dating back to the First International Conference of American States held in Washington, DC in 1889-1890. Its first goal was to coordinate responses to the spread of major infectious diseases, such a malaria and yellow fever. A contributing factor was the serious concern that, with the work on the Panama Canal about to be completed (the Canal was completed in 1907), these diseases could spread from port to port.

Today, all nations in the Americas, from Canada down to Argentina, are members of PAHO, which is a nonpolitical, intergovernmental agency.

As a widely distributed organization, PAHO needs a cost-effective communication system and collaboration tool to address its primary scenarios:

  • Provide direct expertise to support government and public agencies in health-related matters, particularly those of the most vulnerable segments of societies
  • Assist countries in preparation of project proposals to funding agencies
  • Facilitate or broker relationships, that is, help governments find the right people with the right expertise to tackle specific health issues
  • Promote international health standards via publications and active educational and training programs

PAHO’s use of online meeting software to reduce costs and improve international communications is an excellent example of pointing today’s technology at a clearly-defined problem. A lot of attention is always given to the breakthrough/innovative use of collaboration tools, but improving the day-to-day operations of an organization while lowering ever-mounting travel costs (and ever-increasing travel-related inconveniences) is the meat and potatoes of using technology to allow people to work together.

The Pan American Health Organization
(Please download the PDF to see the illustration.)
Illustration 1. Because of the international nature of the organization, PAHO is now relying on Web conferencing software to collaborate on addressing health issues throughout the Americas.


Q&A with Bob Rodrigues, Consultant in Information and Knowledge Management, PAHO

PATRICIA SEYBOLD GROUP (PSG). Tell us a little about the work done by the Pan American Health Organization.

BOB RODRIGUES. We do not provide medical care. Rather, we assist the countries, at both a federal and local level, on making decisions regarding health related programs. Our four major functions, delivered in what we call technical cooperation programs , are those you have mentioned above--providing expertise in health-related matters, assisting in preparation of proposals for funding, facilitating finding the right people to tackle specific health issues, promoting professional and public education, and supporting the development and deployment of international health standards.

All countries in the Americas are members of the organization. And all PAHO decisions are made with the participation of the countries. One of our current areas of focus is responding to the threat of the Asian flu.

PSG. What was the impetus for implementing an online group conferencing system at PAHO?

BOB RODRIGUES. Our organization has about 1,900 employees--600 in the Washington, DC headquarters, and about 1,300 in the field (offices in the various countries in the Americas). Presently, we also have about 700 active contractors. Of all employees, about 800 are professionals--experts in public health, management health, veterinarians, nurses, sanitation engineers, etc. The remaining are support staff. These professionals are distributed in all the countries we represent. Thus, there are a very large number of offices all over the region, some with decentralized installations in the same country.

We did a short study in 2004, and we discovered we spent about $28 million per year on direct mission expenses--transportation and per diem expenses. Obviously, face-to-face meetings are very expensive. For some time, we have been trying to streamline the cost of technical cooperation missions, while maintaining efficiency and effectiveness. As a non-profit organization, we receive less than 30 percent of our funding from the UN, and most of our budget comes from direct contributions of the countries of the Americas. So we need to be very conscientious about spending money wisely.

With rising travel costs, fuel surcharges, etc., we need to find a way to support effective communication and collaboration while simultaneously cutting travel costs.

PSG. Before investigating online group conferencing systems, what methods did PAHO use for communication and collaboration?

BOB RODRIGUES. Traditionally, we relied on the telephone system to serve our organizational communications needs. But this was also a very expensive option because, up until the early 1970s, the tariffs for calling different countries were very high. And these were basically one-to-one conversations--the telephone systems until recently didn’t offer the possibility of having multiple people conferencing on a single phone call.

With the lower costs today, and telephone conferencing capabilities, using the telephone has become much more useful and affordable. However, due to the cost of long-distance calls in many countries, we must ...


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