Background: Accurate diagnosis of malaria and reduced reliance on presumptive treatment are crucial components of quality case management. From 2008 to 2012, the Improving Malaria Diagnostics project, in collaboration with the Zambia National Malaria Control Centre, implemented an external quality assurance scheme partially comprised of outreach training and supportive supervision (OTSS) in an effort to improve malaria case management across a spectrum of health facilities performing laboratory-based malaria diagnostics. OTSS assessments were conducted by project-trained laboratory and clinical supervisors on a regular basis and measured changes in health facility staff performance over time. Standardized supervision tools were used for data collection and guided OTSS teams to assess health facility infrastructure, record keeping practices, stores of supplies and consumables, good laboratory practices, and staff adherence to guidelines for the case management and diagnosis of suspected malaria cases via direct observations or record reviews. The structure of OTSS also allowed supervisors to provide ongoing support to clinicians and laboratory staff through regular mentoring and on-the-job training.
Results: This analysis included 88 laboratories and 64 clinics each with four repeated supervisory assessments. Over the course of the project there were significant declines in the number of laboratories experiencing stock-outs of microscopy reagents/consumables (p < 0.001) and significant increases in the number of laboratories instituting the use of microscopy positive controls (p < 0.01), conducting parasite counting (p < 0.05), and converting from a semi-quantitative to a quantitative parasite counting methodology (p < 0.001). Performance in malaria diagnostic and clinical practices [i.e. RDT use (mean(diff) = 14.3%, p < 0.001), blood slide preparation (mean(diff) = 14.7%, p < 0.001), blood slide staining and reading (mean(diff) = 14.0%, p < 0.001), fever case management (mean(diff) = 7.3%, p < 0.01)] and prescriber adherence to negative diagnostic test results (mean(diff) = 7.2%, p < 0.05) showed modest, but significant gains from assessment 1 to assessment 4.
Conclusion: The external quality assurance scheme provided periodic representations of clinical and laboratory staff performance. OTSS-enrolled health facilities demonstrated improvements to malaria diagnostic skills, adoption of laboratory best practices, strengthened fever case management practices, and improved prescriber adherence to negative malaria test results.
Keywords: Capacity building; Case management; Clinical; Diagnostics; Malaria; Supportive supervision.