Background: Loss to follow-up is a major challenge of antiretroviral treatment (ART) programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Our objective was to a) determine true outcomes of patients lost to follow-up (LTFU) and b) identify risk factors associated with successful tracing and deaths of patients LTFU from ART in a large public sector clinic in Lilongwe, Malawi.
Methods: Patients who were more than 2 weeks late according to their last ART supply and who provided a phone number or address in Lilongwe were eligible for tracing. Their outcomes were updated and risk factors for successful tracing and death were examined.
Results: Of 1800 patients LTFU with consent for tracing, 724 (40%) were eligible and tracing was successful in 534 (74%): 285 (53%) were found to be alive and on ART; 32 (6%) had stopped ART; and 217 (41%) had died. Having a phone contact doubled tracing success (adjusted odds ratio, aOR = 2.1, 95% CI 1.4-3.0) and odds of identifying deaths [aOR = 1.8 (1.2-2.7)] in patients successfully traced. Mortality was higher when ART was fee-based at initiation (aOR = 2.3, 95% CI 1.1-4.7) and declined with follow-up time on ART. Limiting the analysis to patients living in Lilongwe did not change the main findings.
Conclusion: Ascertainment of contact information is a prerequisite for tracing, which can reveal outcomes of a large proportion of patients LTFU. Having a phone contact number is critical for successful tracing, but further research should focus on understanding whether phone tracing is associated with any differential reporting of mortality or LTFU.