Background: Shortages of human resources for health (HRH) have severely hampered the rollout of antiretroviral therapy (ART) in sub-Saharan Africa. Current rollout models are hospital- and physician-intensive. Task shifting, or delegating tasks performed by physicians to staff with lower-level qualifications, is considered a means of expanding rollout in resource-poor or HRH-limited settings.
Methods: We conducted a systematic literature review. Medline, the Cochrane library, the Social Science Citation Index, and the South African National Health Research Database were searched with the following terms: task shift*, balance of care, non-physician clinicians, substitute health care worker, community care givers, primary healthcare teams, cadres, and nurs* HIV. We mined bibliographies and corresponded with authors for further results. Grey literature was searched online, and conference proceedings searched for abstracts.
Results: We found 2960 articles, of which 84 were included in the core review. 51 reported outcomes, including research from 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The most common intervention studied was the delegation of tasks (especially initiating and monitoring HAART) from doctors to nurses and other non-physician clinicians. Five studies showed increased access to HAART through expanded clinical capacity; two concluded task shifting is cost effective; 9 showed staff equal or better quality of care; studies on non-physician clinician agreement with physician decisions was mixed, with the majority showing good agreement.
Conclusions: Task shifting is an effective strategy for addressing shortages of HRH in HIV treatment and care. Task shifting offers high-quality, cost-effective care to more patients than a physician-centered model. The main challenges to implementation include adequate and sustainable training, support and pay for staff in new roles, the integration of new members into healthcare teams, and the compliance of regulatory bodies. Task shifting should be considered for careful implementation where HRH shortages threaten rollout programmes.