Background: Existing population-based surveys have limited accuracy for estimating the coverage and quality of management of child illness. Linking household survey data with health care provider assessments has been proposed as a means of generating more informative population-level estimates of effective coverage, but methodological issues need to be addressed.
Methods: A 2016 survey estimated effective coverage of management of child illness in Southern Province, Zambia, using multiple methods for linking temporally and geographically proximate household and health care provider data. Mothers of children <5 years were surveyed about seeking care for child illness. Information on health care providers' capacity to manage child illness, or structural quality, was assessed using case scenarios and a tool modeled on the WHO Service Availability and Readiness Assessment (SARA). Each sick child was assigned the structural quality score of their stated (exact-match) source of care. Effective coverage was calculated as the average structural quality experienced by all sick children. Children were also ecologically linked to providers using measures of geographic proximity, with and without data on non-facility providers, to assess the effects of these linking methods on effective coverage estimates.
Results: Data were collected on 83 providers and 385 children with fever, diarrhea, and/or symptoms of ARI in the preceding 2 weeks. Most children sought care from government facilities or community-based agents (CBAs). Effective coverage of management of child illness estimated through exact-match linking was approximately 15-points lower in each stratum than coverage of seeking skilled care due to providers' limited structural quality. Estimates generated using most measures of geographic proximity were similar to the exact-match estimate, with the exception of the kernel density estimation method in the urban area. Estimates of coverage in rural areas were greatly reduced across all methods using facility-only data if seeking care from CBAs was treated as unskilled care.
Conclusions: Linking household and provider data may generate more informative estimates of effective coverage of management of child illness. Ecological linking with provider data on a sample of all skilled providers may be as effective as exact-match linking in areas with low variation in structural quality within a provider category or minimal provider bypassing.