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JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes:
doi: 10.1097/QAI.0b013e31828a3fb8
Implementation and Operational Research: Epidemiology and Prevention

Long-Term Health Care Interruptions Among HIV-Positive Patients in Uganda

Mills, Edward J. PhD, MSc*,†; Funk, Anna MSc*; Kanters, Steve MSc*; Kawuma, Esther MPH; Cooper, Curtis MD, MSc§; Mukasa, Barbara MBChB, MPH; Odit, Mary BBIT; Karamagi, Yvonne MBChB, MPH; Mwehire, Daniel BSc; Nachega, Jean MD, PhD; Yaya, Sanni PhD, MSc*; Featherstone, Amber MD, MPH*; Ford, Nathan PhD, MPH

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Author Information

*Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada;

Stanford Prevention Research Center, School of Medicine, Stanford University, Stanford, CA;

Mildmay Uganda, Kampala, Uganda;

§Division of Infectious Diseases, The Ottawa Hospital, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada;

Centre for Infectious Diseases, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa; and

Médecins Sans Frontières, Geneva, Switzerland.

Correspondence to: Dr Edward J. Mills, PhD, MSc, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa, 43 Templeton, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 6N5 (e-mail:

The authors have no funding or conflicts of interest to disclose.

Received August 31, 2012

Accepted January 18, 2013

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Background: Retaining patients in clinical care is necessary to ensure successful antiretroviral treatment (ART) outcomes. Among patients who discontinue care, some reenter care at a later stage, whereas others are or will be lost from follow-up. We examined risk factors for health care interruptions and loss to follow-up within a cohort receiving ART in Uganda.

Methods: Using a large hospital cohort providing free universal ART and HIV clinical care, we assessed characteristics and risk factors for treatment interruptions, defined as a 12-month absence from care at Mildmay, and loss to follow-up, defined as absence from care greater than 12 months without reengagement in care at Mildmay. We included patients aged 14 years and above. We assessed these outcomes over time using Kaplan–Meier analysis and multivariable regression.

Results: Of 6970 eligible patients, 784 (11.2%) had a health care interruption of at least 12 months and 217 (3.1%) were lost to follow-up. Patients experiencing health care interruptions had higher baseline CD4 T-cell counts at ART initiation, defined as ≥250 cells per cubic millimeter [odds ratio (OR): 1.29, 95% confidence intervals (CI): 1.11 to 1.50], and lower levels of education (OR: 1.32, 95% CI: 1.09 to 1.61). Adolescents were much more likely to be lost to follow-up (OR: 3.11, 95% CI: 2.23 to 4.34). In contrast, having a partner (OR: 0.22, 95% CI: 0.16 to 0.31) or being sexually active at baseline (OR: 0.40, 95% CI: 0.28 to 0.55) was protective of loss to follow-up.

Conclusions: Within this cohort, long periods of unsupervised health care interruptions were common.

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Successful antiretroviral therapy (ART) for people infected with HIV/AIDS leads to reduced mortality, morbidity, and extended life expectancy,1,2 particularly for patients treated with higher CD4 status.2,3 In addition to individual health benefits for the treated patient, successful ART reduces viremia and decreases the potential for transmission of HIV to others.4 However, the medical and public health benefits of ART rely on long-term, continuous adherence to drug treatment.5 Defaulting from care has long been recognized as an important concern for ART programmes,6,7 but less well appreciated is the fact that a proportion of these patients only temporarily default and will later return to care, termed unstructured treatment interruptions.8 Such health care interruptions, once considered a potential way to reduce treatment costs and toxicity,9 have since been demonstrated in trials and cohorts to increase drug resistance, viremia, morbidity, and death.10,11–13 Health care interruptions seem to be common (approximately one-fifth of patients) across all regions of the world, but understanding how to reduce them still remains a work in progress.14

In this study, we aimed to determine patterns and predictors of unstructured treatment interruptions or loss to follow-up using data from a representative cohort from Uganda.

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Data and Study Population

All patient data for this study are from the Mildmay Uganda observational cohort.15 Mildmay is a medical service organization providing ART and other health care services to the HIV-positive community in Uganda using a family-centered multidisciplinary approach to care. The organization opened in 1998 to provide specialized outpatient care for people living with HIV/AIDS and provide teaching and training centre for HIV/AIDS health care personnel. This study was restricted to patients who initiated ART between January 2004 and April 2011, were aged 14 years or older at baseline, and have at least a baseline CD4 cell count. Patient level data are collected for all patients and recorded into a central server. Details on our specific cohort are available elsewhere.15

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Outcome Measures and Prediction Variables

Our primary outcomes were health care interruptions, defined as not accessing HIV clinical care for at least 12 months at Mildmay, and loss to follow-up, defined as not accessing care for greater than 12 months and not returning to care at Mildmay up to October 2011. Patients are expected to visit their physician at least once every 6 months to get access to care at Mildmay Uganda. The time to loss to follow-up was the difference between date at treatment initiation and date of last contact. Similarly, time to health care interruption stopped at the start of the period of 12, or more, months. Explanatory variables included demographic (age, sex, marital status, and education), behavioral (sexual activity, disclosure to partner, and partner tested), and clinical variables (CD4 cell count and hepatitis B). Baseline CD4 cell counts were obtained within 6 months before starting treatment. During the period of observation, according to Ugandan Ministry of Health guidelines, patients were considered eligible for treatment if they had a CD4 count ≤250 cells per cubic millimeter (this was changed to ≤350 cells/mm3 in 2012) or a relevant clinical indication.16 CD4 at time of health care interruption was equally measured within 6 months of departure. However, CD4 on return to health care services was restricted to 3 months of follow-up because of the rapid impact of ART on the reconstitution of the immune system.

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Statistical Analyses

We used the Fisher exact test and logistic regression to determine if there were any important differences between each pair of outcome groups with respect to demographic, behavioral, and clinical variables. We used Kaplan–Meier survival curves to demonstrate the proportion of health care interruption and loss to follow-up over time relative to explanatory variables of interest. For each Kaplan–Meier plot, a logrank test was to used assess whether associations were significant. Finally, the Cox proportional hazards regression was used to determine the independent predictors of each outcome. Model selection was approached from an information theory paradigm and accomplished by minimizing the Akaike information criterion among a collection of plausible models.17 First-level interactions were included in the model. Verification of proportional hazards testing the interactions between all variables and time and by visual inspection.18 All analyses were conducted in SAS version 9.3 (Cary, North Carolina, USA) and R version 2.15 (Vienna, Austria).

This study was approved by the institutional review boards of Mildmay Uganda, a Uganda National Council for Science and Technology approved board, and the University of Ottawa.

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In total, 6970 patients aged 14 years or older initiated ART between January 2004 and April 2012. The median age was 36 [interquartile range (IQR): 29–43) years and 2375 (34.1%) were men. Patients were followed for a median of 3.0 years (IQR: 2.0–4.25). During this observation period, 784 (11.2%) patients had a health care interruption of at least 1 year and 217 (3.1%) patients were lost to follow-up. Table 1 displays the characteristics between those retained in care, those with health care interruptions while on treatment, and those lost to follow-up. Interruptions to health care of 12 months or more were more likely among those initiating at a CD4 cell count of 250 cells per cubic millimeter or higher [odds ratio (OR): 1.29, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.11–1.50) and less likely to have a higher education (OR: 0.76, 95% CI: 0.62–0.92). Adolescents were much more likely to be lost to follow-up (OR: 3.11, 95% CI: 2.23–4.34). In contrast, having a partner (OR: 0.22, 95% CI: 0.16–0.31) or being sexually active at baseline (OR: 0.40, 95% CI: 0.28–0.55) was protective.

Table 1
Table 1
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Using a time-to-event analysis had very little effect on the strength of associations between predictor and outcome variables. Figure 1 shows that patients initiating with higher CD4 cell counts (≥250 cells/mm3) were more likely to go a full year without seeing a physician. These figures also show that those who have interruptions do so within the first 2 years of treatment as opposed to the steadier rate of loss to follow-up over a 7-year period observed in Figure 2. The results of the Cox proportional hazards regression model are summarized in Table 2. These suggest that both CD4 cell counts above 250 cells per cubic millimeter [adjusted hazard ratio (aHR): 1.23, 95% CI: 1.04 to 1.47) and higher education (aHR: 0.77, 95% CI: 0.64 to 0.93) are independently protective of health care interruptions.

Figure 1
Figure 1
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Figure 2
Figure 2
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Table 2
Table 2
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Figure 2 demonstrates that CD4 has no significant relationship to loss to follow-up. Results of the Cox proportional hazards regression suggest that age is an important predictor of loss to follow-up. Adolescents are much more likely to be lost to follow-up (aHR: 1.94, 95% CI: 1.38 to 2.73) than those aged 20–49 years. On closer inspection, adolescent females were most likely to be lost to follow-up. Having some secondary education (aHR: 0.38, 95% CI: 0.23 to 0.64), having a partner (aHR: 0.28, 95% CI: 0.20 to 0.38), and being sexually active at baseline (aHR: 0.46, 95% CI: 0.33 to 0.64) were associated with longer retention to care. All tests for the proportionality assumption were not significant.

We examined CD4 changes before and after health care interruptions. These show a generally adequate CD4 cell count (median: 313, IQR: 190–478, n = 332) at time of departure. Determining the difference in CD4 cell counts before and after health care interruptions was limited by the availability of CD4 cell count measurements on return to care (within 6 months of return to care). Of the 53 (16.0%) patients interrupting care with CD4 cell counts below 200 cells per cubic millimeter, the vast majority returned with higher CD4 cell counts. The median change was 207 (IQR: 35–357). In contrast, the median change in CD4 cell counts among the 279 (84%) that left care with CD4 cell counts above 200 was a decrease of 130 (IQR: −23 to −286).

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Our study found an important trend of both health care interruptions and loss to follow-up among a comparatively large proportion of our patient population. Most notably, patients who had health care interruptions were more likely to have higher baseline CD4 counts and patients who were lost to follow-up were more likely to be adolescents.

The relatively low level of loss to follow-up (3.1%) in our cohort likely reflects the fact that Mildmay Uganda works within a geographic catchment area that has a functional adherence support system and can trace patients if required.6 Other cohorts in Africa have reported loss to follow-up as high as 50%6; however, a proportion of these may in fact be interrupters, returning to care at a later date. One of the reasons for large proportions of patients being lost from care in early cohorts is possibly considering absence from clinics for a shorter duration, such as 3 months, as lost from care. Another reason is that patients had switched to newer and closer clinics (ie, self-transfers).19,20

In our study, we observed an important proportion (11%) of patients who temporarily discontinued care and then resumed care after at least 1-year long interruption. Although we do not fully understand the reason for health care interruptions, we found that patients at a higher CD4 status when they initiated ART were more likely to experience a health care interruption. This may support the notion that patients initiating ART without having experienced an illness event may require alternative approaches to adherence support. Other studies have suggested that patients subsequently resume care when their health fails again.21 We are now initiating qualitative work to examine this issue in further detail. Currently, Mildmay Uganda engages patients through group activities and social networks. Moreover, Mildmay personnel will occasionally do home visits. These methods are used to improve retention to care. From the very limited literature on interventions for health care interruptions, we can envision using short message service reminders and community support groups.22–24 These may be targeted at patients believed to be at higher risk for health care interruptions. Before such methods can be implemented, however, we first must determine the use and availability of any required technologies among our cohort.

Our study found that adolescents had the greatest risk of loss to follow-up. This likely reflects some of the known additional risks for poor adherence in adolescents such as having left care due to boarding school restrictions on access, denial of illness, and unstable home situations. We hope future qualitative work will help discern the different motivations in this cohort. Although our study monitored patients for an average of 3 years of follow-up, it is possible, even likely, that as longer periods on treatment are experienced, additional patterns of attrition from care will occur. This reinforces the challenge of lifelong therapy and retention.

Limitations of this study include the fact that patients come from a single health service and may not be applicable to other AIDS service organizations or other countries. We collected only a limited number of patient level variables because these are routinely collected in the cohort. We did not examine the viral status of patients to determine if they developed drug resistance during their health care interruptions as neither resistance testing nor viral load monitoring are common in Uganda. We considered a treatment interruption as an absence from care of at least 12 months, which can be considered a conservative definition as others have used shorter periods, from 1 day to 6 months, to determine health care interruptions8,21; using a shorter definition would likely result in the identification of a higher proportion of treatment interruptions. Finally, we were only able to track patient care at Mildmay Uganda. Mildmay Uganda is a well-established facility near a major urban centre, Kampala, and may therefore not be representative of all AIDS providers in East Africa or elsewhere. Therefore, some patients may have temporarily sought care at other clinics outside of the catchment area. Given that only 16% of patients returned with equal or better CD4 cell counts, such patients represent a minority.

Previous research that examined reasons for health care interruptions in the African settings examined short-term interruptions and found that cost and pharmacy stock-outs explained interruptions.21 However, these reasons are unlikely to explain 1-year gaps in care, particularly because ART care is free at Mildmay and pharmacy stock-outs are rare in PEPFAR programme clinics. They typically implement a buffer period of supplies. Our study therefore has important implications for the delivery of successful ART. There is currently considerable debate about how to roll out ART for the combined effectiveness of patient survival and treatment as prevention.25,26 Some argue to initiate patients immediately after diagnosis of infection to reduce the risk of transmission. However, our study found that higher immune status at baseline was indicative of the risk of health care interruptions. If earlier initiation is encouraged, a renewed emphasis on treatment adherence and retention in care will be necessary. The Ugandan Ministry of Health is recommending the decentralization of HIV/AIDS care from the clinic to the community settings. Evidence indicates that this can be as effective as clinic-based care and reduces costs in resource-constrained settings.27 However, these improvements are relevant to more rural populations and not urban or periurban, such as Mildmay’s populations.

In conclusion, our study found an important proportion of all patients initiated on adult ART experienced a health care interruption of at least 1 year before resuming care. Understanding the reasons for health care interruptions or loss to follow-up now represent important targets to improve the health of patients and decrease their potential for HIV transmission.

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HIV/AIDS; retention; loss to follow-up; health systems; antiretroviral therapy; adherence

© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.


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