Background: Delays seeking care worsen the burden of tuberculosis and cost of care for patients, families and the public health system. This study investigates costs of tuberculosis diagnosis incurred by patients, escorts and the public health system in 10 districts of Ethiopia. Methods: New pulmonary tuberculosis patients ≥ 15 years old were interviewed regarding their health care seeking behaviour at the time of diagnosis. Using a structured questionnaire patients were interviewed about the duration of delay at alternative care providers and the public health system prior to diagnosis. Costs incurred by patients, escorts and the public health system were quantified through patient interview and review of medical records. Results: Interviews were held with 537 (58%) smear positive patients and 387 (42%) smear negative pulmonary patients. Of these, 413 (45%) were female; 451 (49%) were rural residents; and the median age was 34 years. The mean (median) days elapsed for consultation at alternative care providers and public health facilities prior to tuberculosis diagnosis was 5 days (0 days) and 3 (3 days) respectively. The total median cost incurred from first consultation to diagnosis was $27 per patient (mean = $59). The median costs per patient incurred by patient, escort and the public health system were $16 (mean = $29), $3 (mean = $23) and $3 (mean = $7) respectively. The total cost per patient diagnosed was higher for women, rural residents; those who received government food for work support, patients with smear negative pulmonary tuberculosis and patients who were not screened for TB in at least one district diagnostic centers. Conclusions: The costs of tuberculosis diagnosis incurred by patients and escorts represent a significant portion of their monthly income. The costs arising from time lost in seeking care comprised a major portion of the total cost of diagnosis, and may worsen the economic position of patients and their families. Getting treatment from alternative sources and low index of suspicion by public health providers were key problems contributing to increased cost of tuberculosis diagnosis. Thus, the institution of effective systems of referral, ensuring screening of suspects across the district public health system and the involvement of alternative care providers in district tuberculosis control can reduce delays and the financial burden to patients and escorts.
BMC Public Health (2010) 10 (173) [doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-173].