Comparison of sputum collection methods for tuberculosis diagnosis: a systematic review and pairwise and network meta-analysis

Lancet Glob Health. 2017 Aug;5(8):e760-e771. doi: 10.1016/S2214-109X(17)30201-2. Epub 2017 Jun 15.


Background: The performance of laboratory tests to diagnose pulmonary tuberculosis is dependent on the quality of the sputum sample tested. The relative merits of sputum collection methods to improve tuberculosis diagnosis are poorly characterised. We therefore aimed to investigate the effects of sputum collection methods on tuberculosis diagnosis.

Methods: We did a systematic review and meta-analysis to investigate whether non-invasive sputum collection methods in people aged at least 12 years improve the diagnostic performance of laboratory testing for pulmonary tuberculosis. We searched PubMed, Google Scholar, ProQuest, Web of Science, CINAHL, and Embase up to April 14, 2017, to identify relevant experimental, case-control, or cohort studies. We analysed data by pairwise meta-analyses with a random-effects model and by network meta-analysis. All diagnostic performance data were calculated at the sputum-sample level, except where authors only reported data at the individual patient-level. Heterogeneity was assessed, with potential causes identified by logistic meta-regression.

Findings: We identified 23 eligible studies published between 1959 and 2017, involving 8967 participants who provided 19 252 sputum samples. Brief, on-demand spot sputum collection was the main reference standard. Pooled sputum collection increased tuberculosis diagnosis by microscopy (odds ratio [OR] 1·6, 95% CI 1·3-1·9, p<0·0001) or culture (1·7, 1·2-2·4, p=0·01). Providing instructions to the patient before sputum collection, during observed collection, or together with physiotherapy assistance increased diagnostic performance by microscopy (OR 1·6, 95% CI 1·3-2·0, p<0·0001). Collecting early morning sputum did not significantly increase diagnostic performance of microscopy (OR 1·5, 95% CI 0·9-2·6, p=0·2) or culture (1·4, 0·9-2·4, p=0·2). Network meta-analysis confirmed these findings, and revealed that both pooled and instructed spot sputum collections were similarly effective techniques for increasing the diagnostic performance of microscopy.

Interpretation: Tuberculosis diagnoses were substantially increased by either pooled collection or by providing instruction on how to produce a sputum sample taken at any time of the day. Both interventions had a similar effect to that reported for the introduction of new, expensive laboratory tests, and therefore warrant further exploration in the drive to end the global tuberculosis epidemic.

Funding: Wellcome Trust, Joint Global Health Trials consortium, Innovation For Health and Development, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Microscopy
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / isolation & purification*
  • Network Meta-Analysis
  • Odds Ratio
  • Physical Therapy Modalities
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Specimen Handling / methods*
  • Sputum / microbiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Tuberculosis, Pulmonary / diagnosis*