Background: Malaria over-diagnosis in Africa is widespread and costly both financially and in terms of morbidity and mortality from missed diagnoses. An understanding of the reasons behind malaria over-diagnosis is urgently needed to inform strategies for better targeting of antimalarials.
Methods: In an ethnographic study of clinical practice in two hospitals in Tanzania, 2,082 patient consultations with 34 clinicians were observed over a period of three months at each hospital. All clinicians were also interviewed individually as well as being observed during routine working activities with colleagues. Interviews with five tutors and 10 clinical officer students at a nearby clinical officer training college were subsequently conducted.
Results: Four, primarily social, spheres of influence on malaria over-diagnosis were identified. Firstly, the influence of initial training within a context where the importance of malaria is strongly promoted. Secondly, the influence of peers, conforming to perceived expectations from colleagues. Thirdly, pressure to conform with perceived patient preferences. Lastly, quality of diagnostic support, involving resource management, motivation and supervision. Rather than following national guidelines for the diagnosis of febrile illness, clinician behaviour appeared to follow 'mindlines': shared rationales constructed from these different spheres of influence. Three mindlines were identified in this setting: malaria is easier to diagnose than alternative diseases; malaria is a more acceptable diagnosis; and missing malaria is indefensible. These mindlines were apparent during the training stages as well as throughout clinical careers.
Conclusion: Clinicians were found to follow mindlines as well as or rather than guidelines, which incorporated multiple social influences operating in the immediate and the wider context of decision making. Interventions to move mindlines closer to guidelines need to take the variety of social influences into account.