It is estimated that 50%-80% of patients with pediatric cancer in sub-Saharan Africa present at an advanced stage. Delays can occur at any time during the care-seeking process from symptom onset to treatment initiation. Referral delay, the time from first presentation at a health facility to oncologist evaluation, is a key component of total delay that has not been evaluated in sub-Saharan Africa.
Over a 3-month period, caregivers of children diagnosed with cancer at a regional cancer center (Bugando Medical Centre [BMC]) in Tanzania were consecutively surveyed to determine the number and type of health facilities visited before presentation, interventions received, and transportation used to reach each facility.
Forty-nine caregivers were consented and included in the review. A total of 124 facilities were visited before BMC, with 31% of visits (n = 38) resulting in a referral. The median referral delay was 89 days (mean, 122 days), with a median of two facilities (mean, 2.5 facilities) visited before presentation to BMC. Visiting a traditional healer first significantly increased the time taken to reach BMC compared with starting at a health center/dispensary (103 v 236 days; P = .02). Facility visits in which a patient received a referral to a higher-level facility led to significantly decreased time to reach BMC (P < .0001). Only 36% of visits to district hospitals and 20.6% of visits to health centers/dispensaries yielded a referral, however.
The majority of patients were delayed during the referral process, but receipt of a referral to a higher-level facility significantly shortened delay time. Referral delay for pediatric patients with cancer could be decreased by raising awareness of cancer and strengthening the referral process from lower-level to higher-level facilities.