This study reveals that there were substantial delays between the onset of reported symptoms and the initiation of anti-tuberculosis treatment among pulmonary TB cases in Malawi with these delays mainly related to the health care system. The median health system delay in both new (59 days) and retreatment (40.5 days) TB cases are longer than patient delay (14 days) for both types of TB cases. A large proportion of patients (90%) had not been started on anti-tuberculosis treatment 4 weeks after the onset of presenting symptoms, and coughing being the most common symptom (89%) of these cases.
The median patient delay (14 days) was found to be within the recommended target of 2 weeks and was shorter than median health system delays (59 days and 40.5 days for new and retreatment cases, respectively) . Delays in the diagnosis and treatment of pulmonary TB have been shown to be associated with an increased risk of infectivity and poor clinical outcomes .
The median patient delay in this study for new cases was shorter than that found in earlier studies conducted in Malawi in 2000 (56 days) and 2008 (33.5 days); there were however no previous studies on retreatment cases for comparison [8, 9]. The marked reduction in patient delay could be attributed to increased community awareness, increased access to diagnostic services and improved treatment outcomes following decentralization of TB services [4, 12]. The median patient delay was also shorter than that in Ethiopia and Tanzania (30 days) [13, 14], but longer than that in Taiwan (7 days) .
In this study, education was found to be significantly associated with patient delay in new cases, where those with only primary education had longer patient delay than those with secondary education. Not attending school and illiteracy were factors significantly associated with patient delay in studies in Gambia and seven countries of the Eastern Mediterranean Region [16, 17]. However in this study, the no-school group was not significantly associated with patient delay. Nevertheless, patients with higher education likely had more opportunity to obtain information about TB.
In both new and retreatment cases, there was a significant association between patient delay and knowledge that more than 3 weeks of coughing is a symptom of TB. Those patients who knew that coughing for more than 3 weeks is a TB symptom were more likely to have longer delay. This is contradictory to common belief that knowledge of TB may trigger action of seeking health care. We therefore speculate that this may have happened either because the patients did not believe TB could happen to them, or they were waiting for the 3 week period to elapse before seeking care. They may also have feared being stigmatized, especially in Malawi where there is strong association between HIV/AIDS and TB in the face of high HIV/AIDS and TB co-infection rate (70%).
In retreatment cases, living at distances longer than 10 Km from a TB diagnostic facility was significantly associated with longer patient delays. This was in-line with the finding in the previous study in Malawi and therefore likely reveals barriers to accessing care among patients living in the suburbs and distant areas, thereby increasing the risk of transmission of TB . An increase in TB diagnostic facilities and mobile clinics or sputum collection centres close to the communities might be an important step; that is, to decentralizing the services towards peripheral to enhance their diagnosis capacity and to reduce delays. Further innovative methods in case finding in the community should be considered to increase access to health services among those who have limited access to health care and close contacts to known TB patients .
Health system delay
The alertness of the health system to the diagnosis and treatment of TB is essential to the control of TB in Malawi . There were no previous studies done in Malawi that specified the health system delay period for comparison with the findings in this study. Nevertheless, the median health system delay (59 days for new cases and 40.5 days for retreatment cases) in this study was well beyond the recommended 2-weeks period for an effective health system to control TB [4, 10]. As compared to the patient delay, the median health system delay was significantly longer and contributed a higher percentage (over 70%) to the total delay.
The type of health facility first visited by the patients was significantly associated with health system delay among new cases. Significant delays were especially among patients who made the first visits to a health centre and a drug store or a traditional healer. Long pathways to TB diagnosis including multiple patient visits to health centres and traditional healers, prescribing an antibiotic, and health system structural barriers were some of the findings causing delays to diagnosis of pulmonary TB in previous studies in Malawi [8, 20–22]. This may have also resulted from hospitals generally having more qualified staff and more equipment, such as microscopes, than health centres. It is essential to sensitize drug stores and traditional healers and enhance the capacity of health centres to ensure prompt referral, diagnosis and treatment of TB.
During the study, sputum microscopy was the primary investigative method when suspecting TB as GeneXpert had not yet been piloted in the country. It was however noticed that in a quarter of the patients, results of sputum smears were not available at the initiation of treatment. We were not able to determine whether this was due to patients’ inability to produce sputum (dry cough), inconclusive smear microscopy results, or clinicians’ over reliance on chest X-rays. Nevertheless, subsequent smear examination results among these patients indicated that they were smear negative.
Similar to that among new TB patients, negative smear results and smear unknown or not done were significantly associated with longer health system delay among retreatment TB cases in this study. Significant delays between sputum examination and starting TB treatment among smear negative patients have been documented in an earlier study in Malawi, which ranged from 3 to 6 weeks . The reasons for the delays in this previous study were assessing the outcomes of antibiotic treatment and arranging for a chest X-ray examination. Clinicians’ difficulties in making a diagnosis among smear negative TB patients who had submitted multiple sets of sputum samples and received more than two courses of antibiotics before starting TB treatment were noted in a previous study in Malawi . Smear negative pulmonary TB therefore still remains a clinical problem in Malawi coupled with the high prevalence of HIV/TB co-infection and limited resources which may promote further disease progression and transmission [22, 24, 25]. Close monitoring of smear negative patients, effective management algorithms, and new (fast) diagnostic techniques tailored for a resource-poor setting to complement sputum microscopy are required to control delays among smear negative TB patients.
The study nevertheless had limitations. First, the study depended on the patient’s ability to recall their health-seeking period, which is subject to recall bias. The study did not measure the effect of TB and HIV/AIDS co-infection, which may have had major effects on the delays . Lastly, this study was performed in the TB diagnostic facilities located in the cities where there is better access to services and therefore the extent of delays, and factors affecting the delays may be different from those in rural areas. Consequently this study provides estimates of delays in urban areas, which are considered to have better access to TB services and perhaps a higher risk of infection.