A network analysis of patient referrals in two district health systems in Tanzania

Patient referral systems are fragile and overlooked components of the health system in Tanzania. Our study aims at exploring patient referral networks in two rural districts in Tanzania, Kilolo and Msalala. Firstly, we ask whether secondary level facilities act as gatekeepers, mediating referrals from primary to tertiary level facilities. Secondly, we explore the facility and network-level determinants of patient referrals focusing on treatment of childhood illnesses and non-communicable diseases. We use data collected across all public health facilities in the districts in 2018. To study gatekeeping, we employ descriptive network analysis tools. To explore the determinants of referrals,
we use exponential random graph models. In Kilolo we find a disproportionate share of patients referred directly to the largest hospital due to geographical proximity. In Msalala, small and specialized secondary level facilities seem to attract more patients. Overall, the results call for policies to increase referrals to secondary facilities avoiding expensive referrals to hospitals, improving timeliness of care and reducing travel-related financial burden for households.

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