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Measures matter: A scoping review of maternal and newborn indicators

  • Ann-Beth Moller ,

    Roles Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Resources, Writing – review & editing

    mollera@who.int

    Affiliation UNDP/UNFPA/UNICEF/WHO/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP), Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland

  • Holly Newby,

    Roles Data curation, Formal analysis, Writing – original draft

    Affiliation Independent Consultant, Stockholm, Sweden

  • Claudia Hanson,

    Roles Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Department of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

  • Alison Morgan,

    Roles Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Nossal Institute for Global Health, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

  • Shams El Arifeen,

    Roles Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Maternal and Child Health Division, International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), Dhaka, Bangladesh

  • Doris Chou,

    Roles Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation UNDP/UNFPA/UNICEF/WHO/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP), Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland

  • Theresa Diaz,

    Roles Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland

  • Lale Say,

    Roles Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation UNDP/UNFPA/UNICEF/WHO/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP), Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland

  • Ian Askew,

    Roles Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation UNDP/UNFPA/UNICEF/WHO/World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction (HRP), Department of Reproductive Health and Research, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland

  • Allisyn C. Moran

    Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Resources, Writing – review & editing

    Affiliation Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland

Measures matter: A scoping review of maternal and newborn indicators

  • Ann-Beth Moller, 
  • Holly Newby, 
  • Claudia Hanson, 
  • Alison Morgan, 
  • Shams El Arifeen, 
  • Doris Chou, 
  • Theresa Diaz, 
  • Lale Say, 
  • Ian Askew, 
  • Allisyn C. Moran
PLOS
x

Abstract

Background

A variety of global-level monitoring initiatives have recommended indicators for tracking progress in maternal and newborn health. As a first step supporting the work of WHO’s Mother and Newborn Information for Tracking Outcomes and Results (MoNITOR) Technical Advisory Group, we aimed to compile and synthesize recommended indicators in order to document the landscape of maternal and newborn measurement and monitoring.

Methods

We conducted a scoping review of indicators proposed by global multi-stakeholder groups to suggest next steps to further support maternal and newborn measurement and monitoring.

Indicators pertaining to pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum/postnatal and newborn care were extracted and included in the indicator compilation, together with key indicator metadata. We examined patterns and relationships across the compiled indicators.

Results

We identified 140 indicators linked to maternal and newborn health topics across the continuum of service provision. Fifty-five indicators relate to inputs and processes, 30 indicators relate to outputs, outcomes comprise 37 indicators in the database, and 18 impact indicators. A quarter of indicators proposed by global groups is either under development/discussion or is considered “aspirational”, highlighting the currently evolving monitoring landscape. Although considerable efforts have been made to harmonize indicator recommendations, there are still relatively few indicators shared across key monitoring initiatives and some of those that are shared may have definitional variation.

Conclusion

Rapid, wide-ranging work by a number of multi-stakeholder groups has resulted in a substantial number of indicators, many of which partially overlap and many are not supported with adequate documentation or guidance. The volume of indicators, coupled with the number of initiatives promoting different indicator lists, highlight the need for strengthened coordination and technical leadership to harmonize recommendations for improved measurement and monitoring of data related to maternal and newborn heath.

Introduction

With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) [1] in 2015, countries have renewed their commitment to reduce preventable maternal and newborn deaths significantly by 2030. The SDG agenda is supported by several global initiatives and strategies such as the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s, and Adolescents’ Health (Global Strategy) [2], Every Newborn Action Plan (ENAP) [3], Ending Preventable Maternal Mortality (EPMM) [4], and the Global Financing Facility in Support of Every Woman Every Child [5]. These initiatives have set out goals and targets for ending preventable maternal and newborn deaths, as well as stillbirths by 2030.

Monitoring is essential for tracking progress on achieving health outcomes at global, national and sub-national levels and to ensure that investments made are leading to the anticipated improvements in health and well-being. Many indicators currently used for monitoring progress in maternal and newborn health focus on coverage of key services including antenatal care, births attended by skilled personnel, and postnatal care. These coverage indicators have been criticized as limited to measuring contact with a health provider, with little information on content or quality of care provided.[68] Beyond concerns about what indicators are actually being tracked, there is substantial variation in how individual indicators are defined, and how different indicators are being used across and within countries with limited coordinated guidance.[9]

In the face of these measurement challenges, a number of initiatives have been reviewing and recommending sets of indicators, as well as developing and testing novel measures and data collection methods to monitor progress in maternal and newborn health, with a focus on the content and quality of care. ENAP focuses on 10 core indicators [10], EPMM on 12 core indicators [11] and Countdown to 2030 includes 14 core indicators pertaining directly to women and newborns [12], with a number of these indicators under review or development. There is some, but not complete overlap in the indicators proposed by these initiatives, as efforts have been made to harmonize recommendations. Groups focusing specifically on maternal and newborn health have not only coordinated amongst themselves, but have also operated within larger global monitoring efforts such as the SDGs [13] and the Global Strategy [14] with an intention to inform targets and improve tracking. Similarly, coordinated measurement guidance such as that provided by the Health Data Collaborative [15] and the Global Reference List of 100 Core Health Indicators [16] has relied on the technical expertise of these expert initiatives.

The initiatives noted above primarily focus on indicators that can be tracked across a broad range of countries and are thus suitable for national and global-level monitoring. The renewed attention on tracking maternal and newborn health has stimulated thinking around how to further strengthen the evidence base; by validating indicators, further analysis of existing data, and providing better measures for tracking progress at country level, sub-nationally, and at district and facility levels where monitoring and evaluation data are essential to support decentralized planning. Recent efforts have tried to address perceived gaps. Some work has focused on routine health information system needs, such as indicators developed by the United Nations Commission on Life-Saving Commodities.[17] Several other groups, such as the IDEAS project based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, are conducting research on new indicators, often combining data from household and health facility surveys [8, 18, 19] or validating women’s recall of certain events around the time of birth such as the work conducted as part of Improving Coverage Measurement for Maternal Newborn and Child Health based at Johns Hopkins University[2022], and the Quality of Care Network is developing indicators for quality improvement standards[23, 24]. Other projects, such as Transforming Newborn Measurement at the London School[25], are developing and testing indicators for program monitoring through routine health information systems.

Given the amount of ongoing work to strengthen measurement for maternal and newborn health, increased collaboration and coordination are essential as maternal and newborn health are inextricably linked. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the Mother and Newborn Information for Tracking Outcomes and Results (MoNITOR) Group, which functions as a technical advisory body to the WHO on matters of measurement, metrics, and monitoring of maternal and newborn health for the Departments of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Reproductive Health and Research. The purpose of MoNITOR is to provide clear, independent, harmonized, and strategic advice for global and country teams engaged in maternal and newborn measurement and accountability.[26] (Box 1).

Box 1. Mother and Newborn Information for Tracking Outcomes and Results (MoNITOR) technical advisory group—terms of reference

Launched in 2016, the Mother and Newborn Information for Tracking Outcomes and Results (MoNITOR) technical advisory group acts as an advisory body to WHO on matters of measurement, metrics and monitoring of maternal and newborn health for the Departments of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (MCA) and Reproductive Health and Research (RHR).

The terms of reference for the MoNITOR advisory group are to:

Advise on global guidance for improving measurement, for proposed data collection on indicators relevant to maternal and newborn health.

Convene the maternal and newborn measurement community initiatives in relation to metrics, measurement and monitoring to avoid duplication of efforts and confusion in messages to the national and international communities.

Recommend priority areas related to metrics, measurement and monitoring in maternal and newborn health and how to address them.

Catalyze efforts to improve monitoring of maternal and newborn health at global and national levels especially on issues related to measurement tools, indicators and implementation of measurement guidelines.

Provide independent advice to WHO on monitoring-related guidance and norms for maternal and newborn health.

Offer advice on metrics-related research priorities and capacity building for effective implementation of monitoring and evaluation guidance and norms.

Evaluate the utility and quality of existing measurement tools, indicators and data.

As a first step to harmonizing and better defining maternal and newborn indicators, the MoNITOR advisory group recommended compiling existing maternal and newborn indicators proposed by or in use by different agencies, academic, and professional groups, including key metadata such as indicator definition, numerator and denominator, and data source. This scoping review was designed to address the research question: What is the range of indicators currently in use or recommended for global, national and subnational monitoring of maternal and newborn health?

Materials and methods

Study design

We adopted a scoping review design [27, 28] which was judged most adequate in view of the complexity and vast numbers of maternal and newborn indicators (PRISMA checklist see S1 Table). We compiled, mapped and categorized existing maternal and newborn indicators proposed by or reported by different agencies, academia and professional groups. The indicator compilation was conducted between February and June 2017.

Search approach

We applied a purposive approach to identify the initiatives to include in this scoping review, with a goal of including all multi-stakeholder groups working at the global level to promote a harmonized cross-country monitoring approach with standard measures for tracking maternal and newborn health. (Box 2).

Box 2: Global monitoring initiatives reviewed for maternal/newborn indicators

Countdown to 2030

Every Newborn Action Plan

Ending Preventable Maternal Mortality

Global Reference List of 100 Core Health Indicators

Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health

Quality, Equity, Dignity Network

Sustainable Development Goals

Technical consultation on indicators of adolescent health

United Nations Commission on Life Saving Commodities

We reviewed major global initiatives with a strong maternal and newborn health monitoring component, including the Global Strategy, ENAP, EPMM [4, 29], and Countdown to 2030. We also reviewed the Global Reference List of 100 Core Health Indicators, a major resource on health-related indicators, as well as the SDGs, as the overarching global development framework. Any indicators pertaining to pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum/postnatal and newborn care were compiled and extracted and included in the database. Each new indicator was cross-checked against the draft database before being entered to determine whether or not it should be included as a separate indicator or whether it was a duplicate and therefore referenced accordingly.

An additional set of technical initiatives were reviewed in order to cross-check their prioritized indicators against those included in the database. These initiatives encompassed areas such as adolescent health, quality of care around the time of birth, and other maternal and newborn health projects. [23, 24, 30, 31]

A number of considerations guided decisions about the overall structure of the indicator database and the metadata. The goal of the database structure was to be concise enough to be reviewed easily but with enough detail to inform indicator harmonization. Related to this goal was how to best organize and categorize indicators to facilitate use of the database. A further consideration was the harmonization of key information, such as definitions and data source with the Global Reference List of 100 Core Health Indicators and the Global Strategy. The final structure of the database covered basic metadata such as: indicator name, indicator level on monitoring and evaluation continuum, domain, definition, numerator, denominator, disaggregation/additional dimension, feasible data sources, status of indicator (“in use”, or “under discussion/development” or “aspirational”, please see below for details) as well as definitional information and the groups using or advocating for the indicator.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Given the range of aspects related to maternal and newborn health, we considered several criteria. First, the scoping review focused on indicators pertaining specifically to pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum and postnatal care, and newborn care. Second, indicators were included irrespective of the type of indicator, for example, policy or coverage indicator. Third, any indicator currently being proposed by global initiatives advocating a standardized monitoring approach, whether or not the indicator was actively in use or not, under discussion/development or if simply aspirational, was included. An important implication of this decision is there are indicators in the compilation that may be outdated or ill-defined, but they are nonetheless included because they are being advocated by a global initiative.

Data analysis

We developed a classification system in order to be able to group the indicators and define common terms as different definitional and terminology aspects across initiatives are common.

First we grouped the indicators into the four main groups used for classification in the Global Reference List of 100 Core Health Indicators[16]: inputs and processes, outputs, outcomes, and impact.

Inputs are human and financial resources, physical facilities, equipment, and operational policies that enable program activities to be implemented.

Process refers to the multiple activities carried out to achieve the objectives of the program and include both what is done and how well it is done.

Output refers to the results of these efforts at the program level in terms of service access, availability, quality and safety.

Outcome refers to intermediate results of programs measurable at the population level, particularly service coverage.

Impact refers to long-term outcomes programmes are designed to affect, including decreases in mortality, morbidity and fertility.

Second part of the classification scheme was related to “current status” of the indicator by which we mean is the indicator “in use”, “under discussion/development” or “aspirational”.

We defined an indicator as “in use” if clearly defined, and is currently measured and routinely reported.

An indicator under “discussion/development” was defined as an indicator which is currently being developed.

And finally we defined an “aspirational” indicator as an indicator which requires further work to develop common definition and data collection methodologies.

A final step in the process was to examine the patterns and relationships across the compiled indicators. Specific analyses included a) the spread of indicators across a service continuum from input, through output and outcome, to impact, and b) overlap in indicators across the major maternal and newborn health monitoring initiatives.

Results

The database comprises 140 indicators linked to a variety of maternal and newborn health topics across a continuum of service provision. (S2 Table maternal and newborn indicator database) Fifty-five indicators (39%) relate to inputs and processes, such as governance and financing, the health work force, the supply chain, and health information. Thirty (21%) indicators relate to outputs, such as service access and availability, as well as service quality and safety. Outcomes, encompassing both coverage of services and health related behaviors, comprise 37 (26%) indicators in the database. A total of 18 (13%) impact indicators are included. (Table 1 and Fig 1) This breadth of indicators underscores the complexity of tracking high-quality maternal and newborn health care, and highlights the variety of data sources, from routine administrative records to household surveys, needed for monitoring from the facility level up to the national and global levels.

thumbnail
Table 1. Compiled maternal and newborn indicators by monitoring and evaluation level, and domain highlighting indicators that are currently “in use”, versus those that are “under discussion/development” or are “aspirational”.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204763.t001

thumbnail
Fig 1. Numbers of indicators, grouped by monitoring and evaluation level and domain.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204763.g001

A total of 102 out of the 140 indicators included in the database were classified as “in use”, thus they had a clear definition and are being used and measured by at least one global initiative. (Table 2).

thumbnail
Table 2. MNH indicators currently in use which are measured in high and low-middle income countries.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204763.t002

An additional 14 indicators were classified as “under discussion/development” therefore work to advance the indicator is ongoing, for example refining the definition or testing the indicator with an aim to producing a robust measure that can be widely used. Finally, 24 indicators were considered “aspirational,” meaning a group or initiative has proposed an indicator to fill a perceived gap but there has been no significant effort to develop the indicator as yet. Notably, almost all of the aspirational variables being proposed were related to inputs and processes and as well as to outputs (16 and 6, respectively, out of 24). (Table 3).

Although we categorized the indicators into these three distinct sets, the reality is more complex. A number of indicators that are categorized as “in use” may have variation in numerators and particularly denominators across initiatives, for example, or may be under active review such as being the subject of a validation study this applies currently to for example to postnatal and postpartum care indicators.

Looking across the compiled indicators highlights fragmentation in measurement efforts (Table 1). Indicators pertaining to commodities, for example, do not appear to be well-harmonized across initiatives. Some of these indicators are formulated in a generic way so that the same measurement approach could be used to track different target commodities. Other indicators, however, have been formulated to track a specific commodity. Furthermore, in terms of specific commodities needed for provision of services included in the coverage indicators, there is not always a clear link back to indicators relating to policies, supply chain, or commodity availability at the facility level that are preconditions for providing the intervention.

Analysis of the indicators included in just four of the major global health monitoring initiatives–the Global Strategy, ENAP, EPMM, and Countdown—provides insight into recent harmonization efforts. A total of 57 indicators out of the 140 in the database are promoted by at least two of the four initiatives. Of these, 22 indicators are promoted by at least three of the four initiatives, the majority (19) related to outcomes or impact. Just two indicators promoted by at least three initiatives are related to health information (birth registration and death registration) and one indicator relates to service access (availability of functional Emergency Obstetric and Newborn Care—EmONC). (Fig 2).

thumbnail
Fig 2.

Maternal and newborn health (MNH) indicators that are used in 4, 3, 2 and 1 of the four key MNH-related global initiatives:

  • Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health (GSWCAH)
  • Ending Preventable Maternal Mortality (EPMM)
  • Every Newborn Action Plan (ENAP)
  • Countdown to 2030 (CD).

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204763.g002

The results of the scoping review also highlight areas of divergence across the major global health monitoring initiatives. First, overlaps aside, these initiatives have different sets of indicators and even shared indicators may be prioritized differently; for example, what is considered “core” versus “additional”? Second, even some indicators that are common across initiatives may vary in terms of suggested measurement methodology. In the case of postnatal/postpartum care, for example, ENAP, EPMM and Countdown have different approaches to compute the indicators, advocating for either an indicator measuring a combined visit for mother and newborn versus separate indicators for each.

Discussion

Political engagement, financial investments, and technical innovation have resulted in the substantial advancement of the maternal-newborn health evidence base in recent years. There has been increasing consensus around sets of standard indicators, support for data collection and data use, and efforts to address topical gaps, develop innovative methods to further analyze existing data, and to review and validate existing indicators. These advancements not only feed back into higher-level advocacy at the global level, but also serve countries by providing national health planners with a range of options from which to select indicators addressing their specific context.

As positive as these developments have been, the rapid, wide-ranging work by the different groups has resulted in a substantial number of indicators, many of which partially overlap and may not be supported with adequate documentation or guidance or with a feasible data collection platform established. The volume of indicators, coupled with the number of initiatives promoting different indicator lists, is clearly overwhelming to those who need to decide on effective monitoring and evaluation systems at national and subnational levels.

The start of a new SDG global development agenda has marked an unprecedented push to review guidelines and address data gaps, not only in terms of specific SDG indicators but encompassing a broader range of dimensions of well-being. This scoping review has been a critical first step in strengthening measurement harmonization and standardized guidance, although a number of limitations must be acknowledged. Conceptualizing and populating the database was challenging, given the broad range of factors related to maternal and newborn health, as well as the range of actors and initiatives.

Thus, decisions had to be made to limit the focus. The database aims to summarize recommendations by large-scale initiatives that have received global attention and so there are numerous technical working groups focused on the development of standard measures, such as the Chlorhexidine Working Group.[32] Furthermore, this scoping review is an imperfect reflection of even well-known monitoring initiatives. Since the scoping review was undertaken during the first half of 2017, there has been continuing work on quality of care, adolescent health, and even specific sectors of maternal and newborn care, such as antenatal care. This work will necessarily inform revisions in monitoring recommendations. Finally, inconsistencies in naming and definition conventions across initiatives made it challenging at times to determine whether a single indicator or separate indicators should be listed in the database.

Thus, the database is not intended as a definitive list of indicators. Rather, it is designed to be a tool that can help inform the next steps to advance effective maternal-newborn health monitoring by broadly depicting the current measurement landscape. Although the database is an ongoing effort that will continue to be refined and populated, it is nonetheless informative about which indicators are being advocated, what gaps remain, and whether further methodological work is still needed. As most of the research and indicator development has been undertaken by global initiatives there remains a gap in what measures are most useful for individual national and subnational contexts.

Our mapping presents thus a first step and will need to be followed by a set of actions such as to harmonize definitions, address measurement issues and gaps, select a smaller set of core indicators, and propose indicators for which investment and research is needed. More investments are in particular needed to develop guidance on indicators beyond the well-established impact and outcome indicators, and data collection tools including suggestions for maximizing use of all data sources [33]. The results of the scoping review can also guide thinking around addressing monitoring needs at the national and subnational levels by highlighting a series of technical areas in need of strengthening, including, a searchable indicator database made available to the public, technical guidance on key indicators, country level guidance for indicator selection and prioritization, country level guidance on development of HMIS and registries to better capture MNH, and research that operationalizes aspirational indicators. The MoNITOR group is currently drafting a research protocol that will support a series of country case studies to address these gaps and assess the need for country specific support and monitoring guidance.

Conclusion

This scoping review forms a ‘stock take’ of current maternal and newborn indicators. The next steps include documenting the validation gaps and measurement challenges inherent in many of the existing indicators, harmonizing the indicator definition and proposing a set of core indicators and developing indicator specific guidance sheets.

Supporting information

S2 Table. Maternal and newborn indicator database.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204763.s002

(XLSX)

Acknowledgments

The authors acknowledge the MoNITOR Technical Advisory group for their helpful contributions to their view of the indicators. In addition, Joy Lawn, Hannah Blencowe and Harriet Ruysen reviewed the newborn indicators and provided extensive feedback prior to the June 2017 MoNITOR meeting. We would also like to acknowledge the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for supporting this work.

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