How patients navigate the diagnostic ecosystem in a fragmented health system: a qualitative study from India

Glob Health Action. 2017;10(1):1350452. doi: 10.1080/16549716.2017.1350452.


Background: Depending on a country's diagnostic infrastructure, patients and providers play different roles in ensuring that correct and timely diagnosis is made. However, little is known about the work done by patients in accessing diagnostic services and completing the 'test and treat' loop.

Objective: To address this knowledge gap, we traced the diagnostic journeys of patients with tuberculosis, diabetes, hypertension and typhoid, and examined the work they had to do to arrive at a diagnosis.

Methods: This paper draws on a qualitative study, which included 78 semi-structured interviews and 13 focus group discussions with patients, public and private healthcare providers, community health workers, test manufacturers, laboratory technicians, program managers and policymakers. Data were collected between January and June 2013 in rural and urban Karnataka, South India, as part of a larger project on barriers to point-of-care testing. We reconstructed patient diagnostic processes retrospectively and analyzed emerging themes and patterns.

Results: The journey to access diagnostic services requires a high level of involvement and immense work from patients and/or their caretakers. This process entails overcoming cost and distance, negotiating social relations, continuously making sense of their illness and diagnosis, producing and transporting samples, dealing with the social consequences of diagnosis, and returning results to the treating provider. The quality and content of interactions with providers were crucial for completion of test and treat loops. If the tasks became overwhelming, patients opted out, delayed being tested, switched providers and/or reverted to self-testing or self-treatment practices.

Conclusion: Our study demonstrated how difficult it can be for patients to complete diagnostic journeys and how the health system works as far as diagnostics are concerned. If new point-of-care tests are to be implemented successfully, policymakers, program officers and test developers need to find ways to ease patient navigation through diagnostic services.

Keywords: India; Point-of-care; diagnosis; diagnostic journeys; health system; laboratory tests; patient-centered care; qualitative.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Community Health Workers
  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Diabetes Mellitus / diagnosis
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Government Programs
  • Humans
  • India
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Medical Assistance
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Navigation*
  • Point-of-Care Testing*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Rural Population
  • Tuberculosis / diagnosis

Grants and funding

The research is funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [OPP1061487].