Background: Early detection and diagnosis of tuberculosis remain major global priorities for tuberculosis control. Few studies have used a qualitative approach to investigate the social determinants contributing to diagnostic delay and none have compared data collected from individual, community, and health-system levels. We aimed to characterize the social determinants that contribute to diagnostic delay among persons diagnosed with tuberculosis living in resource-constrained settings.
Methods/principle findings: Data were collected in public health facilities with high tuberculosis incidence in 19 districts of Lima, Peru. Semi-structured interviews with persons diagnosed with tuberculosis (n = 105) and their family members (n = 63) explored health-seeking behaviours, community perceptions of tuberculosis and socio-demographic circumstances. Focus groups (n = 6) were conducted with health personnel (n = 35) working in the National Tuberculosis Program. All interview data were transcribed and analysed using a grounded theory approach. The median delay between symptom onset and the public health facility visit that led to the first positive diagnostic sample was 57 days (interquartile range 28-126). The great majority of persons diagnosed with tuberculosis distrusted the public health system and sought care at public health facilities only after exhausting other options. It was universally agreed that persons diagnosed with tuberculosis faced discrimination by public and health personnel. Self-medication with medicines bought at local pharmacies was reported as the most common initial health-seeking behaviour due to the speed and low-cost of treatment in pharmacies. Most persons diagnosed with tuberculosis initially perceived their illness as a simple virus.
Conclusions: Diagnostic delay was common and prolonged. When individuals reached a threshold of symptom severity, they addressed their health with the least time-consuming, most economically feasible, and well-known healthcare option available to them. In high-burden settings, more human and material resources are required to promote tuberculosis case-finding initiatives, reduce tuberculosis associated stigma and address the social determinants underlying diagnostic delay.