Challenges of Implementing Antenatal Ultrasound Screening in a Rural Study Site: A Case Study From the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Persistent global disparities in maternal and neonatal outcomes and the emergence of compact ultrasound technology as an increasingly viable technology for low-resource settings provided the genesis of the First Look Ultrasound study. Initiated in 2014 in 5 low- and middle-income countries and completed in June 2016, the study's intervention included the training of health personnel to perform antenatal ultrasound screening and to refer women identified with high-risk pregnancies to hospitals for appropriate care. This article examines the challenges that arose in implementing the study, with a particular focus on the site in Equateur Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where the challenges were greatest and the efforts to meet these challenges most illuminating. During the study period, we determined that with resources and dedicated staff, it was possible to leverage the infrastructure and implement ultrasound at antenatal care across a variety of remote sites, including rural DRC. However, numerous technical and logistical challenges had to be addressed including security of the equipment, electricity requirements, and integration of the intervention into the health system. To address security concerns, in most of the countries field sonographers were hired and dispatched each day with the equipment to the health centers. At the end of each day, the equipment was locked in a secure, central location. To obtain the required power source, the DRC health centers installed solar panels bolted on adjacent poles since the thatch roofs of the centers prohibited secure roof-top installation. To realize the full value of the ultrasound intervention, women screened with high-risk pregnancies had to seek a higher level of care at the referral hospital for a definitive diagnosis and appropriate care. While the study did provide guidance on referral and systems management to health center and hospital administration, the extent to which this resulted in the necessary structural changes varied depending on the motivation of the stakeholders. In order for such an intervention to be scaled up and sustained as part of a health system's general services, it would require considerable effort, political will, and financial and human resources. Preliminary results from the study indicate that taking routine antenatal ultrasound screening to scale is not warranted. Lessons learned in implementing the study, however, can help inform future studies or programs that are considering use of ultrasound or other imaging technology for other applications in low-resource settings.