Background: India's Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme (RNTCP) is deemed highly successful in terms of detection and cure rates. However, some patients experience delays in accessing diagnosis and treatment. Patients falling between the 96th and 100th percentiles for these access indicators are often ignored as atypical 'outliers' when assessing programme performance. They may, however, provide clues to understanding why some patients never reach the programme. This paper examines the underlying vulnerabilities of patients with extreme values for delays in accessing the RNTCP in Mumbai city, India.
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional study with 266 new sputum positive patients registered with the RNTCP in Mumbai. Patients were classified as 'outliers' if patient, provider and system delays were beyond the 95th percentile for the respective variable. Case profiles of 'outliers' for patient, provider and system delays were examined and compared with the rest of the sample to identify key factors responsible for delays.
Results: Forty-two patients were 'outliers' on one or more of the delay variables. All 'outliers' had a significantly lower per capita income than the remaining sample. The lack of economic resources was compounded by social, structural and environmental vulnerabilities. Longer patient delays were related to patients' perception of symptoms as non-serious. Provider delays were incurred as a result of private providers' failure to respond to tuberculosis in a timely manner. Diagnostic and treatment delays were minimal, however, analysis of the 'outliers' revealed the importance of social support in enabling access to the programme.
Conclusion: A proxy for those who fail to reach the programme, these case profiles highlight unique vulnerabilities that need innovative approaches by the RNTCP. The focus on 'outliers' provides a less resource- and time-intensive alternative to community-based studies for understanding the barriers to reaching public health programmes.