Reaching the end of the line: Operational issues with implementing phone-based unannounced pill counts in resource-limited settings

Hirsch-Moverman, Yael; Burkot, Camilla; Saito, Suzue; Frederix, Koen; Pitt, Blanche; Melaku, Zenebe; Belachew, Tsigereda Gadisa; Howard, Andrea A.

Accurate measurement of adherence is necessary to ensure that therapeutic outcomes can be attributed to the recommended treatment. Phone-based unannounced pill counts were shown to be feasible and reliable measures of adherence in developed settings; and have been further used as part of medication adherence interventions. However, it is not clear whether this method can be implemented successfully in resource-limited settings, where cellular network and mobile phone coverage may be low. Our objective is to describe operational issues surrounding the use of phone-based unannounced pill counts in Lesotho and Ethiopia.

Phone-based monthly unannounced pill counts, using an adaptation of a standardized protocol from previous US-based studies, were utilized to measure anti-TB and antiretroviral medication adherence in two implementation science studies in resource-limited settings, START (Lesotho) and ENRICH (Ethiopia).

In START, 19.6% of calls were completed, with 71.9% of participants reached at least once; majority of failed call attempts were due to phones not being available (54.8%) or because participants were away from the pills (32.7%). In ENRICH, 33.5% of calls were completed, with 86.7% of participants reached at least once; the main reasons for failed call attempts were phones being switched off (31.5%), participants not answering (27.3%), participants’ discomfort speaking on the phone (15.4%), and network problems (13.2%). Structural, facility-level, participant-level, and data collection challenges were encountered in these settings.

Phone-based unannounced pill counts were found to be challenging, and response rates suboptimal. While some of these challenges were specific to local contexts, most of them are generalizable to resource-limited settings. In a research study context, a possible solution to ease operational challenges may be to focus phone-based unannounced pill count efforts on a randomly selected sample from participants who are provided with study phones and rigorously ensure that call attempts are made for these participants.

Geographic Areas


Also Published In

More About This Work