Complex care systems in developing countries

Breast cancer patient navigation in Ethiopia


  • Presented in part at the Sixth European Breast Cancer Conference (EBCC-6), Berlin, Germany, April 15-19, 2008.



As the global visibility and importance of breast cancer increases, especially in developing countries, ensuring that countries strengthen and develop health systems that support prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a complex chronic disease is a priority. Understanding how breast cancer patients navigate health systems to reach appropriate levels of care is critical in assessing and improving the health system response in countries to an increasing breast cancer burden in their populations. Ethiopia has accelerated attention to breast cancer, expanding clinical and public health efforts at diagnosing and treating breast cancer earlier and more efficiently.


This project used a mixed-method approach to assessing patient navigation of the healthcare system that resulted in care at the cancer referral hospital for Ethiopia (Tikur Anbessa Hospital [TAH]). In total, 69 patients representative of the entire breast cancer clinical population at TAH were interviewed.


Navigation chains are widely divergent and typically involve 3 or more care nodes until they reach the referral hospital. Patients who consult traditional healers have significantly more care nodes to reach the referral hospital than others, and patients who have direct access to local and regional hospitals have the smallest number of care nodes. Patients report moving laterally from 1 health institution to another or regressing to lower levels of care, sometimes complicated by reinvolving traditional healers.


The care system can be streamlined for breast cancer patients in Ethiopia to facilitate patient access to available and clinically effective diagnostic and treatment services in the country, largely through improving local primary care and hospital capacity to provide basic breast cancer services and improve detection and referral. Cancer 2010. © 2009 American Cancer Society.