Expert Q&A: No one size fits all in the pursuit of the best pneumonia diagnostic aids

Malaria Consortium Senior Project Officer, Charlotte Ward, speaks about pneumonia as a global priority issue, how we are attempting to tackle the disease and explore the future of diagnostic devices.

Pneumonia is an acute respiratory infection that affects the lungs and is responsible for 16 percent[1] of deaths of all children under five. This proportion is much higher in low-resource countries where access to healthcare is limited, particularly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet despite being the single largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide, pneumonia can be diagnosed and treated with low-cost and simple interventions and medication.


What are the current challenges in diagnosing and treating pneumonia?

Diagnosis of pneumonia by community health workers (CHWs) is commonly based on counting the number of breaths in 60 seconds in children under five to assess whether the respiratory rate (RR) is higher than the normal parameters for a child of that age. However, manually counting RR can be challenging due to the difficulties in observing and counting chest movements for a full minute and keeping the child calm during this period. Therefore, misclassification of observed rate is common, leading to incorrect diagnosis and consequently inappropriate antibiotic treatment, contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance.

 What different types of devices are currently being used?

Non-automated devices, assisted RR counting devices and pulse oximeters are currently being used. Non-automated devices are the lowest cost and most commonly used tools. They support manual counting of chest movements by indicating when to start and stop counting. Assisted counting RR devices automate the counting process thus negating the need for manual counting. An example is a mobile RR smartphone app that works by counting the number of times the CHW taps the screen for each chest movement. Pulse oximeters work by measuring the blood oxygen saturation levels in the patient. Three types of pulse oximeters exist: handheld, mobile and finger-tip pulse oximeters.

How do we evaluate the best devices?

Formative research to understand the best class of devices is critical before designing and implementing a device field trial. An example of formative research is pile sorting and accompanying focus group discussions with key stakeholders. Pile sorting is when you ask key stakeholders to sort word, item or picture cards into piles that classify a range of opinions or categories of interest and then capture and explore participants’ decision-making rationale for their sorting using a focus group discussion. In this case, stakeholders including representatives of national and regional Ministry of Health (MoH), regional health bureaus, multilateral organisations such as UNICEF, and relevant NGO staff, would be demonstrated device types and asked to place cards with various device names into different piles according to their perceived usability, and again for their perceived scalability. Devices are then scored based on how they are sorted and those with the highest scores may be carried forward for field testing.

 What challenges will there be in designing appropriate diagnostic aids?

A major challenge is designing appropriate diagnostic aids that appeal to a wide range of stakeholders with differing views and priorities. CHWs and national and regional stakeholders prioritise different characteristics when rating the potential scalability of aids. For example, CHWs emphasise the importance of aids being acceptable to CHWs, parents and caregivers more than national stakeholders who prioritise the need for cost-effectiveness and sustainability. Practical usability is also heavily prioritised by CHWs whereas NGO and MoH stakeholders are strongly invested in ensuring the supply and distribution processes are uncomplicated and inexpensive. Further considerations are whether the device can be used in remote areas with unreliable electricity source, how much training is required to use the device and how durable the device is.

 What are future directions?

Device development is a complex process and the challenges in appealing to a wide range of stakeholders mean that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is unfeasible. However, there is global momentum towards developing automated devices that count RR without the need for human intervention. It is hoped that such devices will offer improved accuracy and effectiveness compared to current practice for classifying the symptoms of pneumonia, therefore improving the treatment of patients at community level. Furthermore, automated devices have the potential to increase caregiver and patient confidence in CHWs, thus strengthening programmes of integrated management of new-born and child health at community level in low-resource settings.

Projects that Malaria Consortium has undertaken on pneumonia

 Related resources:

Charlotte Ward is a Senior Project Officer here at Malaria Consortium. She is currently focussed on the ARIDA project, which is working to bring automated respiratory rate counting aids to wide-scale use by frontline health care workers in resource limited community settings.