Background: Health systems that deliver prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) services in low and middle income countries continue to underperform, resulting in thousands of unnecessary HIV infections of newborns each year. We used a combination of approaches to health systems strengthening to reduce transmission of HIV from mother to infant in a multi-facility public health system in South Africa.
Methodology/principal findings: All primary care sites and specialized birthing centers in a resource constrained sub-district of Cape Metro District, South Africa, were enrolled in a quality improvement (QI) programme. All pregnant women receiving antenatal, intrapartum and postnatal infant care in the sub-district between January 2006 and March 2009 were included in the intervention that had a prototype-innovation phase and a rapid spread phase. System changes were introduced to help frontline healthcare workers to identify and improve performance gaps at each step of the PMTCT pathway. Improvement was facilitated and spread through the use of a Breakthrough Series Collaborative that accelerated learning and the spread of successful changes. Protocol changes and additional resources were introduced by provincial and municipal government. The proportion of HIV-exposed infants testing positive declined from 7.6% to 5%. Key intermediate PMTCT processes improved (antenatal AZT increased from 74% to 86%, PMTCT clients on HAART at the time of labour increased from 10% to 25%, intrapartum AZT increased from 43% to 84%, and postnatal HIV testing from 79% to 95%) compared to baseline.
Conclusions/significance: System improvement methods, protocol changes and addition/reallocation of resources contributed to improved PMTCT processes and outcomes in a resource constrained setting. The intervention requires a clear design, leadership buy-in, building local capacity to use systems improvement methods, and a reliable data system. A systems improvement approach offers a much needed approach to rapidly improve under-performing PMTCT implementation programmes at scale in sub-Saharan Africa.