Exploring primary care level provider interpretation and management of potential breast and cervical cancer signs and symptoms in South Africa

30 Sep 2021
Jennifer Moodley, Jane Harries, Suzanne Emilie Scott, Amos Deogratius Mwaka, Smiji Saji, Fiona Mary Walter

Objectives: Women with potential breast and cervical cancer symptoms in South Africa (SA) usually self-present to primary health care (PHC) clinics. The aim of this study was to explore PHC provider interpretation and management of potential breast and cervical cancer signs and symptoms.

Methods: In-depth interviews with PHC providers incorporating vignettes were conducted between April and May 2019 in two sites in SA. Four vignettes (two breast and two cervical) were developed by the research team to capture aspects of provider symptom interpretation, reasoning, actions and challenges. The content of the vignettes was informed by a preceding community-based survey and qualitative interviews with symptomatic women. Interviews were audio recorded, transcribed verbatim and analysed using a thematic analysis approach.

Results: Twenty-four PHC providers were interviewed (12 urban, 12 rural; median age: 43 years). Four main themes relating to clinical assessment and reasoning; referral and feedback challenges; awareness of breast and cervical cancer policy guidelines and training and education needs emerged. Vignette-prompted questions relating to presenting symptoms, and possible accompanying symptoms and signs, demonstrated comprehensive proposed history taking and clinical assessment by PHC providers. Cancer was considered as a potential diagnosis by the majority of PHC providers. PHC providers also considered the possibility of infectious causes for both breast and cervical vignettes indicating they would ask questions around human immunodeficiency virus status, use of anti-retroviral therapy, and, for those with cervical symptoms, would need to rule out a sexually transmitted infection. Sexual assault was considered in assessing the cervical symptom scenarios. Providers raised issues around cumbersome booking systems and lack of feedback from referral centres. The need for provider and patient education and training to improve timely diagnosis of breast and cervical cancer was raised. Most providers were not aware of current breast or cervical cancer policy guidelines.

Conclusion: Clinical assessment at PHC level is complex and influenced by local health issues. Providing context-relevant training and support for PHC providers, and improving referral and feedback systems, could assist timely diagnosis of women with symptomatic breast and cervical cancer.

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