Background: Tajikistan has the highest incidence rate of tuberculosis (TB) in Central Asia. Its health system still bears many features from Soviet times and is under-funded. Affordability is a major barrier to health care. Little is known about health care seeking of TB patients in post-Soviet countries and their delay until the start of TB therapy. The low estimated case detection rate in Tajikistan suggests major problems with access to care and consequently long delays are likely.
Methods: The study investigated extent and determinants of patient and health system delays for TB. A questionnaire was administered to a cohort of TB patients in twelve study districts representing a wide range of conditions found in Tajikistan. Common patterns of health care seeking were analysed. Cox proportional hazards models using eight predictor variables, including characteristics of health services delivery, were built to identify determinants of patient and health system delays.
Results: Two-hundred-and-four TB patients were interviewed. A common pattern in treatment-seeking was visiting a specialised TB facility at some stage. Typical delays until start of TB therapy were moderate and did not confirm the expectation of long delays. Median patient, health system and total delays to TB treatment were 21.5, 16 and 52 days, respectively. None of the investigated predictors was significantly associated with patient delay. The type of facility, where patients made their first contact with the health system, was the main determinant of health system delay (p < 0.00005). We show for the first time that patients who had fallen ill and first presented to health care in Russia had the longest delays. Those who first presented to peripheral primary care facilities also had relatively long delays.
Conclusions: While overall delays were moderate, further improvement is needed for different subgroups. An international referral system between Russia and Tajikistan to reduce delays of Tajik migrants who develop active TB in Russia is urgently needed and would benefit both countries. Within Tajikistan, diagnostic pathways for patients in the periphery should be shortened. To achieve this, strengthening of sputum smear examination possibly including collection of sputa at peripheral primary care facilities may be needed.