Setting: South Africa's rural Northern Province.
Objectives: To examine patterns of health seeking behaviour among hospitalised tuberculosis patients.
Design: Information on personal characteristics, health seeking behaviour and delays to presentation and hospitalisation was collected from hospitalised TB patients. Analysis of rates was used to investigate factors associated with delay.
Results: Among 298 patients, median total delay to hospitalisation was 10 weeks, with patient delay contributing a greater proportion than service provider delay. Patients more often presented initially to public hospitals (41%) or clinics (31 %) than to spiritual/traditional healers (15%) or private GPs (13%). Total delay was shorter amongst those presenting to hospitals than those presenting to clinics (rate ratio 1.33, 95%CI 1.13-1.85), with a significantly smaller proportion of the total delay attributable to the health service provider (18% vs. 42%). Those exhibiting a conventional risk profile for TB (migrants, alcohol drinkers, history of TB) were diagnosed most quickly by health services, while women remained undiagnosed for longer.
Conclusion: Considerable delay exists between symptom onset and treatment initiation among pulmonary tuberculosis patients. While a substantial delay was attributable to late patient presentation, an important, preventable period of infectiousness was caused by the failure of recognised clinical services to diagnose tuberculosis among symptomatic individuals.