Making HIV testing work at the point of care in South Africa: a qualitative study of diagnostic practices

Nora Engel*, Malika Davids, Nadine Blankvoort, Keertan Dheda, Nitika Pant Pai, Madhukar Pai

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

15 Citations (Web of Science)


Background: Point of care testing promises to reduce delays in diagnosing and initiating treatment for infectious diseases such as Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV). In South Africa, decentralized HIV testing with rapid tests offers important lessons for point of care testing programs. Yet, little is known about the strategies of providers and clients to make HIV testing successful in settings short of equipment, human resources and space. We aimed at examining these strategies.

Methods: This paper is based on a larger qualitative study of diagnostic practices across major diseases and actors in homes, clinics, communities, hospitals and laboratories in South Africa. We conducted 101 semi-structured interviews and 7 focus group discussions with doctors, nurses, community health workers, patients, laboratory technicians, policymakers, hospital managers and manufacturers between September 2012 and June 2013 in Durban, Cape Town and Eastern Cape. The topics explored included diagnostic processes and challenges, understanding of diagnosis, and visions of ideal tests. For this paper, the data on HIV testing processes in clinics, communities and hospitals was used.

Results: Strategies to make HIV testing work at point of care involve overcoming constraints in equipment, spaces, human resources and workload and actively managing diagnostic processes. We grouped these strategies into subthemes: maintaining relationships, adapting testing guidelines and practices to stock-outs, to physical space, and to different clients, turning the test into a tool to reach another aim and turning the testing process into a tool to enhance adherence. These adaptive strategies are locally negotiated solutions, often ad-hoc, depending on personal commitment, relationships, human resources, physical space and referral systems. In the process, testing is redefined and repurposed. Not all of these repurposing acts are successful in ensuring a timely diagnosis. Some lead to disruptions, unnecessary testing or delays with at times unclear implications for quality of diagnosis.

Conclusion: Tests shape relationships, professional roles and practices of users at point of care. At the same time, testing processes are dynamic and test results and processes take on new meanings for clients and providers. These insights are crucial for understanding the contexts within which diagnostic devices and policies need to function.

Original languageEnglish
Article number408
Number of pages11
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jun 2017


  • Diagnostic practices
  • Point of care
  • HIV
  • South Africa

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