African Health Sciences

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Assessment of maternal referral systems used for a rural Zambian hospital: the development of setting specific protocols for the identification of complications

Ashley E Benson, Michael J Benson, Amy H Luke


Background: In resource-limited countries, it is estimated that up to 75% of maternal deaths are preventable. Maternal referral systems are an effective measure to help prevent these deaths. 

Objective: The objective of this study was to delineate criteria that health care workers use to identify obstetrical emergencies and make referrals, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the established referral system and to implement improvements to this system.

Methods: Using a qualitative study design, the individuals with the highest level of formal obstetrics training at 10 health posts that refer to a rural Zambian hospital were surveyed using semi-structured interviews regarding their referral protocols. Data were analyzed through open-coding. At the conclusion of the interview, standardized referral protocols for obstetric emergen- cies derived from published guidelines and local practices were distributed.

Results: Identified complications resulting in referral most commonly included post-partum hemorrhage (70%), prolonged labor (70%), malpresentation (50%), antepartum hemorrhage (40%), and retained placenta (40%). While numerous reasons for referral were identified, there was little consensus on the referral protocol used for each complication.  Obstacles to successful referral most commonly included cellular network disruptions (70%), distance (50%), and lack of transportation (30%). The referral protocols distributed to health posts covered only 11 of the 23 complications cited as the most common reason for referral.

Conclusion: The referral criteria and protocols were updated to include all of the reported complications. We propose this document for others working in resource-limited settings attempting to establish or evaluate a maternal referral systems.

Keywords: Maternal referral systems, Zambian hospital, protocols, complications.
AJOL African Journals Online