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Health Policy Plan. 1998 Dec;13(4):359-70.

Zimbabwe's hospital referral system: does it work?

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Public Health Programme, University of the Western Cape, Bellville, South Africa.



Anecdotal evidence has suggested inefficiency in the pyramidal health care referral system established in Zimbabwe in 1980, as part of its primary health care (PHC) model.


To assess the functioning of the pyramidal referral system in two rural districts surrounding Harare, Zimbabwe, with regard to two common indicator conditions: pneumonia in children and malaria in adults.


For a three-month period, all complete inpatient records with discharge diagnoses of pneumonia or malaria from three hospitals representing different levels of care were analyzed (n = 227). Data were collected on demographic and patient care variables. The appropriateness of admissions and referrals was determined by an assessment of the severity of illness and 'intensiveness' of care required. Data were analyzed for differences among the three hospitals and between the two indicator conditions. Per night inpatient bed costs for each hospital were also calculated.


For pneumonia in children, 56.8% of patients admitted at the secondary level, 53.8% of patients at the tertiary level and 57.8% of patients at the quaternary level were of mild severity. For malaria in adults, 74.0% of patients seen at the secondary level, 81.5% of patients at the tertiary level and 54.3% at the quaternary level were of mild severity. For pneumonia, were no differences in severity between the three hospitals whereas for malaria significant case-mix differences among the hospitals were found. Most patients attending the highest level referral facility were inappropriate admissions who could have been treated at a lower level of care. The majority of patients at all the hospitals studied had used that hospital as their first or second point of contact with the health services. There were large variations in the inpatient per night bed costs between the three hospitals.


Using the indicator diseases of pneumonia in children and malaria in adults, this study concluded that this network did not meet design expectations as the central level referral hospital cared for a similar case-mix of patients as the district level, but at six times the cost. The appropriateness of admissions and referrals could be improved by developing or strengthening intermediate level facilities, by changing mechanisms of access to specialist facilities and by training health professionals in community settings.

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