Background: Individuals diagnosed with HIV in developing countries are not always successfully linked to onward treatment services, resulting in missed opportunities for timely initiation of antiretroviral therapy, or prophylaxis for opportunistic infections. In collaboration with local stakeholders, we designed and assessed a referral system to link persons diagnosed at a voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) clinic in a rural district in northern Tanzania with a government-run HIV treatment clinic in a nearby city.
Methods: Two-part referral forms, with unique matching numbers on each side were implemented to facilitate access to the HIV clinic, and were subsequently reconciled to monitor the proportion of diagnosed clients who registered for these services, stratified by sex and referral period. Delays between referral and registration at the HIV clinic were calculated, and lists of non-attendees were generated to facilitate tracing among those who had given prior consent for follow up.Transportation allowances and a "community escort" from a local home-based care organization were introduced for patients attending the HIV clinic, with supportive counselling services provided by the VCT counsellors and home-based care volunteers. Focus group discussions and in-depth interviews were conducted with health care workers and patients to assess the acceptability of the referral procedures.
Results: Referral uptake at the HIV clinic averaged 72% among men and 66% among women during the first three years of the national antiretroviral therapy (ART) programme, and gradually increased following the introduction of the transportation allowances and community escorts, but declined following a national VCT campaign. Most patients reported that the referral system facilitated their arrival at the HIV clinic, but expressed a desire for HIV treatment services to be in closer proximity to their homes. The referral forms proved to be an efficient and accepted method for assessing the effectiveness of the VCT clinic as an entry point for ART.
Conclusion: The referral system reduced delays in seeking care, and enabled the monitoring of access to HIV treatment among diagnosed persons. Similar systems to monitor referral uptake and linkages between HIV services could be readily implemented in other settings.