An effective referral system is essential for a high-quality health system that provides safe surgical care while optimizing patient outcomes and ensuring efficiency. The role of referral systems in countries with under-resourced health systems is poorly understood. The aim of this study was to examine the rates, preventability, reasons and patterns of outward referrals of surgical patients across three levels of the healthcare system in Northern Tanzania.
Referrals from surgical and obstetric wards were assessed at 20 health facilities in five rural regions prospectively over 3 months. Trained physician data collectors used data collection forms to capture referral details daily from hospital referral letters and through discussions with clinicians and nurses. Referrals were deemed preventable if the presenting condition was one that should be managed at the referring facility level per the national surgical, obstetric and anaesthesia plan but was referred.
Seven hundred forty-three total outward referrals were recorded during the study period. The referral rate was highest at regional hospitals (2.9%), followed by district hospitals (1.9%) and health centers (1.5%). About 35% of all referrals were preventable, with the highest rate from regional hospitals (70%). The most common reasons for referrals were staff-related (76%), followed by equipment (55%) and drugs or supplies (21%). Patient preference accounted for 1% of referrals. Three quarters of referrals (77%) were to the zonal hospital, followed by the regional hospitals (17%) and district hospitals (12%). The most common reason for referral to zonal (84%) and regional level (66%) hospitals was need for specialist care while the most common reason for referral to district level hospitals was non-functional imaging diagnostic equipment (28%).
Improving the referral system in Tanzania, in order to improve quality and efficiency of patient care, will require significant investments in human resources and equipment to meet the recommended standards at each level of care. Specifically, improving access to specialists at regional referral and district hospitals is likely to reduce the number of preventable referrals to higher level hospitals, thereby reducing overcrowding at higher-level hospitals and improving the efficiency of the health system.