Hadley Herbert and colleagues systematically review newborn care-seeking behaviors by caregivers in low- and middle-income countries.
Despite recent achievements to reduce child mortality, neonatal deaths continue to remain high, accounting for 41% of all deaths in children under five years of age worldwide, of which over 90% occur in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Infections are a leading cause of death and limitations in care seeking for ill neonates contribute to high mortality rates. As estimates for care-seeking behaviors in LMICs have not been studied, this review describes care seeking for neonatal illnesses in LMICs, with particular attention to type of care sought.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a systematic literature review of studies that reported the proportion of caregivers that sought care for ill or suspected ill neonates in LMICs. The initial search yielded 784 studies, of which 22 studies described relevant data from community household surveys, facility-based surveys, and intervention trials. The majority of studies were from South Asia (n = 17/22), set in rural areas (n = 17/22), and published within the last 4 years (n = 18/22). Of the 9,098 neonates who were ill or suspected to be ill, 4,320 caregivers sought some type of care, including care from a health facility (n = 370) or provider (n = 1,813). Care seeking ranged between 10% and 100% among caregivers with a median of 59%. Care seeking from a health care provider yielded a similar range and median, while care seeking at a health care facility ranged between 1% and 100%, with a median of 20%. Care-seeking estimates were limited by the few studies conducted in urban settings and regions other than South Asia. There was a lack of consistency regarding illness, care-seeking, and care provider definitions.
There is a paucity of data regarding newborn care-seeking behaviors; in South Asia, care seeking is low for newborn illness, especially in terms of care sought from health care facilities and medically trained providers. There is a need for representative data to describe care-seeking patterns in different geographic regions and better understand mechanisms to enhance care seeking during this vulnerable time period.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Worldwide around 3.3 million babies die within their first month of life every year. While the global neonatal mortality rate has declined by 28% between 1990 and 2009 (from 33.2 deaths per 1,000 livebirths to 23.9), the proportion of under-five child deaths that are now in the neonatal period has increased in all regions of the world and currently stands at 41%. Of these deaths, over 90% occur in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), making the risk of death in the neonatal period in LMICs more than six times higher than in high-income countries. In LMIC settings most babies are born at home so inappropriate and delayed care seeking can contribute substantially to neonatal mortality. Infection causes over a quarter of all deaths in neonates, but in LMICs diagnosis is often based on nonspecific clinical signs, which may delay the provision of care.
Why Was This Study Done?
In order to improve neonatal survival in LMICs, health care facilities and providers must not only be available and accessible but a baby's caregiver, often a parent or other family member, must also recognize that the baby is ill and seek help. To address this problem with effective strategies, an understanding is needed of the patterns of care-seeking behavior by babies' caregivers in seeking help from health-care facilities or providers. In this study, the researchers explored the extent and nature of care-seeking behaviors by the caregivers of ill babies in LMIC settings.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Using multiple databases, the researchers conducted a comprehensive review up until October 2011 of all relevant studies including those that had not been formally published. Using specific criteria, the researchers then identified 22 appropriate studies (out of a possible 784) and recorded the same information from each study, including the number of neonates with illness or suspected illness, the number of care providers who sought care, and where care was sought. They also assessed the quality of each included study (the majority of which were from rural areas in South Asia) on the basis of a validated method for reviewing intervention effectiveness. The researchers found that the definitions of neonatal illness and care-seeking behavior varied considerably between studies or were not defined at all. Because of these inherent study differences it was not possible to statistically combine the results from the identified studies using a technique called meta-analysis, instead the researchers reported literature estimates and described their findings narratively.
The researchers' analysis included 9,098 neonates who were identified in community-based studies as being ill or suspected of being ill and a total of 4,320 related care-seeking events: care seeking ranged between 10% and 100% among caregivers including seeking care from a health facility (370) or from a health provider (1,813). Furthermore, between 4% to 100% of caregivers sought care from a trained medical provider and 4% to 48% specified receiving care at a health care facility: caregivers typically sought help from primary health care, secondary health care, and pharmacies and some from an unqualified health provider. The researchers also identified seven community-based intervention studies that included interventions such as essential newborn care, birth preparedness, and illness recognition, where all showed an increase in care seeking following the intervention.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings highlight the lack of a standardized and consistent approach to neonate care-seeking behaviors described in the literature. However, despite the large variations of results, care seeking for newborn illnesses in LMICs appears to be low in general and remains a key challenge to improving neonatal mortality. Global research efforts to define, understand, and address care seeking, may help to reduce the global burden of neonatal mortality. However, to achieve sustainable improvements in neonatal survival, changes are needed to both increase the demand for newborn care and strengthen health care systems to improve access to, and quality of, care. This review also shows that there is a role for interventions within the community to encourage appropriate and timely care seeking. Finally, by addressing the inconsistencies and establishing standardized terms to identify barriers to care, future studies may be able to better generalize the factors and delays that influence neonatal care seeking.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001183.
A recent PLoS Medicine study has the latest figures on neonatal mortality worldwide
UNICEF provides information about progress toward United Nations Millennium Development Goal 4
UNICEF also has information about neonatal mortality
The United Nations Population Fund has information on home births