Learning from evidence: Advice-seeking behaviour among Primary Health Care physicians in Pakistan.

Author(s) Asmat Malik1, Cameron Willis2, Saima Hamid3, Anar Ulikpan 4, Peter Hill 5.
Affiliation(s) 1Department of Research and Development, Integrated Health Services, Islamabad, Pakistan, 2School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, 3Department of Maternal and Reproductive Health, Health Services Academy, Islamabad, Pakistan, 4School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, 5School of Population Health, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.
Country - ies of focus Pakistan
Relevant to the conference tracks Health Systems
Summary Access to information is critical for creating and maintaining high performing Primary Health Care (PHC) systems. Among multiple sources of information, advice-seeking from humans possesses significant importance for the physicians in their clinical settings because they are looking for readily available answers to their questions. We used Tuberculosis and measles as a lens for analyzing the advice-seeking behavior of PHC physicians in Pakistan. The study concludes that the heath care providers are falling prey to stagnant system behaviour. There is a need to better understand system behaviors and to identify system principles such as information flows and feedback loops.
Background The available studies provide some insights into how physicians seek information while working in PHC settings. However, as this literature is largely confined to developed countries, there is relatively little known about how physicians in low-middle income countries access or use information when faced with difficult to diagnose conditions. In these settings, where access to electronic information sources is often scarce, understanding advice seeking behaviors from human sources becomes particularly important. Using methods grounded in systems science, this study examines the advice seeking behaviour of PHC physicians in a rural district of Pakistan, analyzes the degree to which the existing PHC system supports their access to advice, and explores ways this system might be strengthened to better meet provider needs.
Objectives Tuberculosis (TB) and measles are currently providing major challenges to PHC physicians in Pakistan. We used these two conditions as a lens for analyzing the advice-seeking behavior of PHC physicans in Pakistan. The specific research questions of this study were:
• To what degree does the existing structure of the PHC system in Pakistan support physicians in accessing advice on difficult to diagnose cases of tuberculosis and measles?
• To what degree are physicians satisfied with their current access to advice on difficult to diagnose cases of tuberculosis and measles?
• What changes, if any, do physicians recommend to improve their access to advice on difficult to diagnose cases of tuberculosis and measles?
In order to answer these research questions, this study has the following specific research objectives:
• To document the flow of information on diagnosing TB and measles cases in the PHC system of Pakistan;
• To describe the advice seeking behaviour of physicians in situations of difficult to diagnose cases of TB and measles;
• To explore physicians’ satisfaction with their access to advice in difficult to diagnose cases of TB and measles;
• To identify and describe possible changes, if any, that physicians recommend to improve their access to advice in difficult to diagnose cases of TB and measles.
Methodology This study was conducted at the district level in Pakistan from January 2013 to August 2013. The organization of health services at a district level is similar across Pakistan. With a cross-sectional study design we employed three research methods comprising:
1. Mapping of formal system of flow of information for diagnosing TB and measles.
Through documentary review and targeted key informant interviews with five district health administrators and line-managers of vertical health programs, we mapped the existing system of the flow of information for assisting physicians in diagnosing TB and measles cases. Illustrations of formal information dissemination systems were developed in the form of flow charts showing the direction of flow of information and roles and responsibilities for providing information/feedback at various hierarchical levels.
2. Survey for social network analysis of physician advice seeking behaviour.
A semi-structured questionnaire was used to conduct a survey for mapping professional networks. The key questions were structured to identify whom each physician had contacted for advice whenever faced a difficult to diagnose cases of TB and measles. Out of the 61 BHUs in district Attock, only those with an appointed physician (n=49) were invited to participate. The compiled data was imported in UCINET software for generating sociograms.
3. Key stakeholder interviews.
Based on the analysis of the findings from Sociograms, the BHU physicians were divided into three groups:
• Physicians who sought advice from a designated person (formally notified by the health department)
• Physicians who sought advice from someone other than a designated person
• Physicians who did not seek advice from any other person
This grouping provided the basis for selecting 11 study respondents for in-depth interviews. All study participants agreed to one-on-one interviews and consented to audio recording. Three separate interview guides were used during these semi-structured in-depth interviews among the three groups of study respondents. The average interview time was 20 minutes. The researchers using an inductive process identified categories, sub-themes and themes. The research team then compared their findings to optimize the data conformity. The final themes were presented after the research team’s consensus on the analysis process.
Results The present configuration of the primary health care system in Pakistan is largely a result of the push for universal health coverage and Health for All under the declaration of Alma Ata Conference on PHC in 1978. Under the influence of this global movement, an extensive network of PHC clinics (5449 Basic Health Units and 579 Rural Health Centers) has been established as the first point of contact for those seeking healthcare across all districts in Pakistan.
Early detection of both TB and measles is critical to decrease morbidity and mortality rates. There are multiple sources of information available to assist physicians in diagnosing cases of TB and measles including clinical guidelines, case definitions and case detection protocols. While these information sources are largely provided through government agencies, the precise channels used for their distribution and the ways in which physicians make use of these channels have not been made explicit. Mostly they use their personal social networks in order to seek guidance in clinical care from their friends, peers, and other disease-specific experts.
With a systems approach, the thematic analysis has been categorized under four key areas. Firstly, the health leadership designs health programs and interventions without placing competent experts and a pathway to seek information on difficult cases (system organizing). Referral systems are not functional and there is no feedback on the patients’ from whom advice is being taken. As a consequence, patients are lost to the private sector. Secondly, PHC clinics do not have functional linkages with tertiary care hospitals (system network). In addition, no needs assessment for refresher trainings is conducted by the health department. Thirdly, the PHC physicians are not provided any feedback on patients sent to higher level centers (system dynamics). There exists no formal system of communication and dissemination through which the latest research or related materials are shared. In addition, there exist no opportunities where PHC physicians can be placed at secondary or tertiary care hospital on a rotation basis. Lastly, the focus of the health managers and administrators is more on administrative running of programs and meeting targets (system knowledge). Consequently, capacity building in clinical management has become a neglected priority.
Conclusion The analysis of the PHC system in Pakistan clearly demonstrates that the problems in the health sector are deeply rooted and complex in nature. The evidence from this study demonstrates that in situations where PHC physicians require further advice in diagnosing potential cases of TB or measles, it is unclear from whom this advice is being sought, or the degree to which the current PHC system enables physicians to seek this advice.
PHC level acts as a driver for healthcare delivery system whereas human resources are the main driving force behind a functional health system because they provide a human link that connects the system building blocks. However, in Pakistan, the heath care providers are falling prey to  stagnant system behaviour. The solutions require a systems’ thinking that views public health problems as a part of a wider and dynamic system, with a focus on in-depth understanding of the linkages, relationships, interactions and behaviors among the sub-system components that characterize the entire system. It is imperative to better understand system behaviors and to identify system principles such as information flows and feedback loops.

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