Effects of physical tracing on estimates of loss to follow-up, mortality and retention in low and middle income country antiretroviral therapy programs: a systematic review

PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e56047. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056047. Epub 2013 Feb 12.


Background: A large proportion of patients receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART) in low and middle income countries (LMICs) have unknown treatment outcomes and are classified as lost to follow-up (LTFU). Physical tracing of patients classified as LTFU is common; however, effects of tracing on outcomes remains unclear. The objective of this systematic review is to compare estimates of LTFU, mortality and retention in LMIC in cohorts of patients with and without physical tracing.

Methods and findings: We systematically identified studies in LMIC programmatic settings using MEDLINE (2003-2011) and HIV conference abstracts (2009-2011). Studies reporting the proportion LTFU 12-months after ART initiation were included. Tracing activities were determined from manuscripts or by contacting study authors. Studies were classified as "tracing studies" if physical tracing was available for the majority of patients. Summary estimates from the 2 groups of studies (tracing and non-tracing) for LTFU, mortality, stop of ART, transfers out, and retention on ART were determined. 261 papers and 616 abstracts were identified of which 39 studies comprising 54 separate cohorts (n = 187,666) met inclusion criteria. Of those, physical tracing was available for 46% of cohorts. Treatment programs with physical tracing activities had lower estimated LTFU (7.6% vs. 15.1%; p<.001), higher estimated mortality (10.5% vs. 6.6%; p = .006), higher retention on ART (80.0 vs. 75.8%; p = .04) and higher retention at the original site (80.0% vs. 72.9%; p = .02).

Conclusions: Knowledge of patient tracing is critical when interpreting program outcomes of LTFU, mortality and retention. The reduction of the proportion LTFU in tracing studies was only partially explained by re-classification of unknown outcomes. These data suggest that tracing may lead to increased re-engagement of patients in care, rather than just improved classification of unknown outcomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-HIV Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Developing Countries / statistics & numerical data*
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy*
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology*
  • HIV Infections / mortality
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Income / statistics & numerical data*
  • Lost to Follow-Up*


  • Anti-HIV Agents