Untreated surgical conditions in Malawi: A randomised cross-sectional nationwide household survey
Background Noncommunicable diseases, such as surgical conditions have received little attention from public health planners in low income countries (LIC) like Malawi. Though increasingly recognised as a growing global health problem, the burden of surgical pathologies and access to surgical care has not been adequately identified in many LIC. Information on the spectrum and burden of surgical disease in Malawi is important to uncover the unmet need for surgery and for planning of the National Health Service.
Methods This was a multistage random cluster sampling national survey. Households were selected from clusters using probability proportional to size method. 1448 households and 2909 interviewees were analysed. The Surgeons Overseas Assessment of Surgical need (SOSAS) tool was used to collect data. This electronic tablet based questionnaire tool included general information and a dual personalised head to toe inquiry on surgical conditions. The general information included number of household members, and inquired on any death within the past twelve months, and if any of the deaths in the family had a suspected surgical condition leading to that death. Data was collected by specially trained third year medical students.
Results Out of 1480 selected households, 1448 (98%) agreed to participate, with 2909 interviewed individuals included in the study. The median household size was 6 individuals (range 1 – 47). Median age of interviewed persons was 35 years (range 0.25 – 104 years). 1027 out of 2909 (35%) of the interviewed people reported to be living with a condition requiring surgical consultation or intervention, whereas 146 of 616 (24%) of the total deaths reported to have occurred in the preceding 12 months were reported to have died from a surgically related condition. Most individuals did not seek health care due to lack of funds for transportation to the health facility. Only 3.1% of those that reported a surgical condition had surgical intervention.
Conclusions There is a large unmet need for surgical care in Malawi. A third of the population is living with a condition needing surgical consultation or intervention, and a quarter of all deaths are potentially avoidable with surgery. Urgent scale up of surgical services and training are needed to reduce this huge gap in public health planning in the country.