Share this article on:

Is Syndromic Management Better Than the Current Approach for Treatment of STDs in China?: Evaluation of the Cost-Effectiveness of Syndromic Management for Male STD Patients


Sexually Transmitted Diseases: April 2003 - Volume 30 - Issue 4 - p 327-330

Background The syndromic treatment approach has not been evaluated in sexually transmitted disease (STD) clinics in China.

Goal The goal was to evaluate and compare the validity and cost-effectiveness of syndromic management with current STD management for men in clinics in Hefei, China.

Study Design Diagnostic accuracy, treatment appropriateness, costs, and effectiveness of current clinical procedures and syndromic management were compared for 406 men attending four STD clinics.

Results A modified World Health Organization (WHO) syndromic algorithm for urethral discharge yielded 100% sensitivity and a 69% positive predictive value (PPV). A syndromic algorithm for genital ulcers correctly treated all syphilis patients, with a 25% PPV. The average cost (in $US) per correct treatment by the current approach was $323.48 for urethritis and $85.65 for syphilis. For the syndromic approach, the average cost per correct treatment was $3.15 for urethritis and $13.54 for syphilis.

Conclusion Syndromic management can provide better treatment for men with STDs at significantly lower cost in resource-poor settings such as China.

Syndromic management of sexually transmitted diseases was found to provide better treatment at much lower cost than the approach currently used in the evaluated clinics.

*School of Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles; Fogarty International Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, and University of California, Los Angeles; Hefei Anti-Epidemic Station, Anhui, China; and §National Center for STD and Leprosy Control, Nanjing, China

Supported by a grant (1TW00013) from the National Institutes of Health/Fogarty International Center.

The authors thank Drs. Barbara Visscher and Susan Cochran for their assistance and advice in conducting the study, Dr. Lilani Kumaranayake for reviewing the manuscript, and Ms. Jean Savage for preparation of the manuscript.

Dr. Liu is currently at the Department of Community and Family Medicine, School of Medicine, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, China.

Reprint requests: Roger Detels, MD, MS, University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Epidemiology, Box 951772, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1772. E-mail:

Received June 27, 2002,

revised August 26, 2002, and accepted September 23, 2002.

RECENTLY, THE INCIDENCE OF sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including AIDS, has soared in China. 1 Effective programs that provide accurate diagnosis and effective treatment are essential but are rare in China. Studies have indicated that there are obstacles to effective STD management, including lack of laboratory facilities, qualified staff, and financial resources. 2,3 Thus, affordable, effective approaches to manage STDs need to be developed. The World Health Organization (WHO) developed and advocates syndromic management to manage STDs. 4,5 This approach facilitates rapid diagnosis and treatment without requiring sophisticated, time-consuming laboratory tests or advanced medical skills. Although studies in several countries have demonstrated that syndromic management is effective, 6,7 the approach has yet to be evaluated in STD clinics in local settings in China. We first evaluated the validity of syndromic management to treat patients with urethral discharge, dysuria, or genital ulcers and then assessed its cost-effectiveness in comparison with the approach currently used in STD clinics.

Back to Top | Article Outline


The study site and population have been described previously. 8 STD physicians made a presumptive diagnosis based on the physical examination findings and requested that the men provide a specimen for testing for causative agents. The physician's final diagnosis was based on experience as well as the results of the local clinic laboratory tests. Drugs were prescribed according to the physician's judgment.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Syndromic Management

With use of the WHO syndromic algorithms, men were classified as having either urethral discharge or genital ulcers. For the final analysis, the WHO algorithm was modified to include all men who reported urethral discharge or dysuria.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Laboratory Tests

Laboratories in different STD clinics used different methods. The procedures in each laboratory were performed as usual. 3

Back to Top | Article Outline

The Gold Standard

An aliquot of each specimen was transported to the Chinese National Center for STD Control and Prevention, in Nanjing, for testing. These tests were done without knowledge of the results of the tests performed in the local STD clinic or of the physician's diagnosis. The procedures have been described previously. 8

Back to Top | Article Outline

Cost and Effectiveness Analysis

Only the direct costs incurred by private consumers were included (UNAIDS costing guidelines for HIV prevention strategies). The costs of the current approach included the amount paid for laboratory tests, physical examination (check-up) by physicians, and drugs. Costs were obtained directly from patients’ payment records. The costs of syndromic management included expenses for physical examination, drugs, materials for health education, and condoms.

Correctly treated men were defined as those whose conditions were correctly diagnosed and who were given appropriate drugs. Men who were free of Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Chlamydia trachomatis, or Treponema pallidum infection but had these mistakenly diagnosed and were treated for the infection were classified as overdiagnosed and overtreated. If men with N gonorrhoeae, C trachomatis, or T pallidum infection were mistakenly treated for another infection with drugs not active against the actual infection, they were classified as incorrectly diagnosed and treated. The cost, however, was considered in the cost analysis.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Statistical Analysis

All data were analyzed with SAS software (version 8.01; SAS Institute, Cary, NC). Results from the STD clinics and the national center were compared, with use of the testing results from the national center as the gold standard. The sensitivity, specificity, and positive predictive values (PPVs) of syndromic management were calculated.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Study Population

Four-hundred seventeen eligible men were invited to participate, but 11 (3%) refused. Thus, 406 men (97%) reporting genitourinary symptoms were interviewed. Three-hundred fifty men (86%) had urethral discharge or dysuria symptoms, and 55 men (14%) had genital ulcers. One man (0.3%) had both urethral discharge and a genital ulcer.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Validity Analysis of Syndromic Management

Validity analysis was performed among 347 men with urethral discharge or dysuria. Of the 290 men with urethral discharge, 227 were positive for N gonorrhoeae and/or C trachomatis. Of 57 men with only dysuria, 13 were positive for one of the two causative agents (Fig. 1). According to the WHO syndromic algorithm, 227 men would have been correctly treated, yielding 95% sensitivity (227/240) and 78% PPV (227/290). Thirteen men with dysuria would not have been treated. Including these 13 men would have increased the sensitivity to 100%, with 69% PPV (Table 1). One-hundred seven men would be overtreated. Thus, we modified the WHO algorithm to include men with dysuria as well in the analyses.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1



Among 55 men with genital sores or ulcers, 53 had confirmed genital ulcers. Among men with confirmed genital ulcers, 13 were positive for syphilis and 15 were positive for HSV; none of the men without ulcers were positive. None had chancroid. If syndromic management were used, all syphilis patients would have been correctly treated, yielding 100% sensitivity and 25% PPV, but 40 patients would have been overtreated (Fig. 2, Table 1).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Back to Top | Article Outline

Effectiveness Analysis

Among 347 men with urethral discharge or dysuria, 121 (35%) were correctly treated for gonorrhea and/or chlamydia, 119 (34%) with gonorrhea and/or chlamydia were incorrectly treated, and 107 (31%) without N gonorrhoeae or C trachomatis infection were overtreated. If syndromic management had been used, all 240 men with N gonorrhoeae and/or C trachomatis infection would have been correctly treated, and 107 (31%) patients would have been overtreated. The number of patients (107) overtreated by syndromic management would have been the same as with the current approach.

Among 53 men with ulcers, the current approach correctly treated 12 (23%) with syphilis, overtreated 10 (19%) without syphilis, and incorrectly treated 1 (2%). If syndromic management had been used, all 13 syphilis patients would have been correctly treated, but 40 (75%) patients without syphilis would have been overtreated.

With the current approach, 49% of men with N gonorrhoeae infection (77/158), 25% (7/28) with C trachomatis infection, and 65% (35/54) with both infections were incorrectly treated. With syndromic management, all men would have been correctly treated.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Cost Analysis

Men underwent a variety of drug treatment regimens and laboratory tests; thus, the costs for treatment differed. The median cost per correctly treated man was $84.27 for gonorrhea, $158.30 for chlamydia, and $177.42 for mixed infections (Table 2). The average cost per correct treatment for urethritis was $323.48 (Table 3). According to the WHO protocol, two drugs are to be used that are effective for both gonorrhea and chlamydia. 9 Ciprofloxacin (500 mg in a single oral dose) is prescribed to treat gonococcal urethritis, and doxycycline (100 mg orally twice daily for 7 days) is used to treat chlamydial urethritis. The cost of the two drugs per patient is $0.79. The fee for a physical examination is $0.60. Syndromic management also requires health education and condom provision. Therefore, $0.79 per patient should be added to cover health education materials ($0.17) and 10 condoms ($0.62), a total of $2.18 per correctly treated patient. The average cost per correctly treated patients with urethritis would be $3.15.





With the current approach, the median cost per correctly treated patient with a genital ulcer was $27.20; the cost was $112 per incorrectly treated patient and $59 per overtreated patient. The average cost per correctly treated syphilis patient was $85.65. For the treatment of syphilis by syndromic management, the WHO recommends benzathine penicillin G (2.4 million units intramuscularly). The cost is $1.93, plus $0.60 for a physical examination and $0.79 for educational material and condoms. The total cost is $3.32, whether the patient receives correct treatment or overtreatment. The average cost per correct treatment for all patients with genital ulcers by syndromic management would be $13.54.

Back to Top | Article Outline


This study indicated that modified syndromic management would have high validity and cost-effectiveness in the treatment of men with STDs and could be easily implemented in China. The urethral discharge algorithm proposed by the WHO, however, would need to be expanded to include dysuria. The inclusion of dysuria was also suggested by another study. 10 A significant advantage of using modified syndromic management is its ability to effectively treat all patients with the mixed N gonorrhoeae and C trachomatis infections; only 35% of the patients were correctly treated by the current approach. The inaccuracy in diagnosis of mixed infections may have been due to the physicians’ inability to make a correct diagnosis or an inaccurate laboratory test. The WHO algorithm for treating patients with genital ulcers would result in effective treatment of all syphilis patients. A proportion of nonsyphilis patients, however, would be overtreated. Because chancroid is rare in China, 11 the treatment for genital ulcer diseases at present may not cover chancroid. An antiviral therapy for herpes is not available in most primary healthcare settings; thus, it is important to treat for syphilis, even if some of the genital ulcers treated are actually caused by herpes. 12 All patients should receive health education.

Overdiagnosis and overtreatment are the major disadvantages of syndromic management, influencing health authorities against the approach. Our study indicated that problems of overtreatment and incorrect treatment with use of modified syndromic management were even less than with the current approach because of the low level of accuracy with the latter. However, the number of overtreated or incorrectly treated patients with genital ulcers was greater with syndromic management than with the current approach. Because the current approach also used RPR and TPHA to diagnosis syphilis, the syndromic and current approaches have almost the same ability to diagnose syphilis. However, laboratory test results usually cannot be obtained immediately, and as a result, patients have to return for treatment 1 or 2 days later. Some patients may not return.

Another major concern of syndromic management of STDs is the cost of drugs from overtreatment and the use of multiple antibiotic drugs. The high cost may cause underutilization of services by patients. 13 The cost per correct treatment by the current approach, with both incorrect treatment and overtreatment considered, was much higher than for syndromic management. The expense with the current approach is associated with the use of multiple intramuscular and intravenous drugs and overdosage of drugs.

The results have important public health implications. First, the results should allay fears that syndromic management results in more overtreatment and higher costs. Second, many STD patients may go to pharmacies and buy drugs directly. Syndromic management does not require a physician's diagnosis and may be used by pharmacists, thereby further reducing costs. Last, use of the modified syndromic management approach can be implemented easily by primary healthcare resources without highly trained staff or laboratories.

In conclusion, use of modified syndromic management for men with urethral discharge and ulcers is a simple, cost-effective approach in resource-poor countries. Overtreatment is no greater problem than with the current approach. Health authorities should consider implementing the approach in China, especially at the primary healthcare level.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1. Chen XS, Gong XD, Liang GJ, Zhang GC. Epidemiologic trends of sexually transmitted diseases in China. Sex Transm Dis 2000; 27: 138–142.
2. Choi KH, Zheng X, Zhou H, Chen W, Mandel J. Treatment delay and reliance on private physicians among patients with sexually transmitted diseases in China. Int J STD AIDS 1999; 10: 309–315.
3. Liu H, Detels R, Yin Y, Li X, Ma E. Do STD clinics correctly diagnose STDs? An assessment of STD management in clinics in Hefei, China. Int J STD AIDS (in press).
4. World Health Organization. Management of patients with sexually transmitted disease. World Health Organization Technical Report Series 810. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1991.
5. World Health Organization. Global programme on AIDS. Management of sexually transmitted diseases [WHO/GPA/TEM/94.1]. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1991.
6. Pettifor A, Walsh J, Wilkins V, Raghunathan P. How effective is syndromic management of STDs? A review of current studies. Sex Transm Dis 2000; 27: 371–385.
7. Bosu WK. Syndromic management of sexually transmitted diseases: is it rational or scientific? Trop Med Int Health 1999; 4: 114–118.
8. Liu H, Detels R, Li X, Ma E, Yin Y. Stigma, delayed treatment, and spousal notification among male patients with sexually transmitted disease in China. Sex Transm Dis 2002; 29: 335–343.
9. World Health Organization. STD case management workbook 4: diagnosis and treatment [WHO/GPA/TCO/PMT/95.18]. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1995.
10. Dallabetta G, Behets F, Lule G, et al. Specificity of dysuria and discharge complaints and presence of urethritis in male patients attending an STD clinic in Malawi. Sex Transm Infect 1998; 74 (suppl 1): S34–S37.
11. Zhang Z. Sexually transmitted diseases. Shengyang: Liao Ning Press of Science and Technology 1999: 104–106.
12. Vuylsteke B, Meheus A. STD syndrome management. In: Dallabetta G, Laga M, Lamptey P, eds. Control of Sexual Transmitted Diseases: A Handbook for the Design and Management of Programs. Arlington, Virginia: AIDSCAP/Family Health International, 1997: 149–168.
13. Creese AL. User charges for health care: a review of recent experience. Health Policy Plann 1991; 6: 309–319.
© Copyright 2003 American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association