Background: Delays in the diagnosis of tuberculosis may result in increased patient morbidity and in further spread of the disease. We examined the clinical acumen of the medical staff in the diagnosis of tuberculosis and investigated the reasons for delay in the identification and treatment of patients with pulmonary tuberculosis.
Methods: A retrospective chart review was undertaken between July 1985 and June 1988 on all patients with culture-proven pulmonary tuberculosis at two inner city hospitals. Time intervals between admission and the clinical suspicion, diagnosis, and treatment of tuberculosis were determined. Clinical features were evaluated for their effect on these time intervals.
Results: Eighty-five patients with culture-proven pulmonary tuberculosis were identified. Tuberculosis was suspected in 36 patients on admission. By the end of 1 week, tuberculosis was confirmed in 50 patients and suspected in 23 others. Twenty percent of patients either died or were discharged before the diagnosis of tuberculosis was made. Older patients (> 65 years) were misdiagnosed more commonly than younger patients (82% vs 48%). Patients without respiratory symptoms were misdiagnosed more frequently (78% vs 49%) than were those with symptoms. Other reasons for delayed diagnosis and treatment included low use of tuberculin skin tests, misinterpretation of unusual chest roentgenograms, and waiting for culture results in patients with negative acid-fast smears.
Conclusions: The diagnosis and treatment of patients with pulmonary tuberculosis is often delayed owing to atypical presentations and slow confirmation by culture. Improved clinical acumen, development of rapid diagnostic tests, and the institution of early empiric therapy are desirable to control this disease.