Background Effective infectious disease control requires early diagnosis and treatment initiation. Point-of-care testing offers rapid turn-around-times, facilitating same day clinical management decisions. To maximize the benefits of such POC testing programs, we need to understand how rapid tests are used in everyday clinical practice. Methods In this cross-sectional survey study, 400 primary healthcare providers in two cities in South Africa were interviewed on their use of rapid tests in general, and tuberculosis diagnostic practices, between September 2012 and June 2013. Public healthcare facilities were selected using probability-sampling techniques and private healthcare providers were randomly selected from the Health Professional Council of South Africa list. To ascertain differences between the two healthcare sectors 2-sample z-tests were used to compare sample proportions. Results The numbers of providers interviewed were equally distributed between the public (n = 200) and private sector (n = 200). The most frequently reported tests in the private sector include blood pressure (99.5%), glucose finger prick (89.5%) and urine dipstick (38.5%); and in the public sector were pregnancy (100%), urine dipstick (100%), blood pressure (100%), glucose finger prick (99%) and HIV rapid test (98%). The majority of TB testing occurs in the public sector, where significantly more providers prefer Xpert MTB/RIF assay, the designated clinical TB diagnostic tool by the national TB program, as compared to the private sector (87% versus 71%, p-value >0.0001). Challenges with regard to TB diagnosis included the long laboratory turn-around-time, difficulty in obtaining sputum samples and lost results. All providers indicated that a new POC test for TB should be rapid and cheap, have good sensitivity and specificity, ease of sample acquisition, detect drug-resistance and work in HIV-infected persons. Conclusion/significance The existing centralized laboratory services, poor quality assurance, and lack of staff capacity deter the use of more rapid tests at POC. Further research into the practices and choices of these providers is necessary to aid the development of new POC tests.