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BACKGROUND: Pulse oximetry, a relatively inexpensive technology, has the potential to improve health outcomes by reducing incorrect diagnoses and supporting appropriate treatment decisions. There is evidence that in low- and middle-income countries, even when available, widespread uptake of pulse oximeters has not occurred, and little research has examined why. We sought to determine when and with which children pulse oximeters are used in Kenyan hospitals, how pulse oximeter use impacts treatment provision, and the barriers to pulse oximeter use. METHODS AND FINDINGS: We analyzed admissions data recorded through Kenya's Clinical Information Network (CIN) between September 2013 and February 2016. We carried out multiple imputation and generated multivariable regression models in R. We also conducted interviews with 30 healthcare workers and staff from 14 Kenyan hospitals to examine pulse oximetry adoption. We adapted the Integrative Model of Behavioural Prediction to link the results from the multivariable regression analyses to the qualitative findings. We included 27,906 child admissions from 7 hospitals in the quantitative analyses. The median age of the children was 1 year, and 55% were male. Three-quarters had a fever, over half had a cough; other symptoms/signs were difficulty breathing (34%), difficulty feeding (34%), and indrawing (32%). The most common diagnoses were pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria: 45%, 35%, and 28% of children, respectively, had these diagnoses. Half of the children obtained a pulse oximeter reading, and of these, 10% had an oxygen saturation level below 90%. Children were more likely to receive a pulse oximeter reading if they were not alert (odds ratio [OR]: 1.30, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.09, 1.55, p = 0.003), had chest indrawing (OR: 1.28, 95% CI: 1.17, 1.40, p < 0.001), or a very high respiratory rate (OR: 1.27, 95% CI: 1.13, 1.43, p < 0.001), as were children admitted to certain hospitals, at later time periods, and when a Paediatric Admission Record (PAR) was used (OR PAR used compared with PAR not present: 2.41, 95% CI: 1.98, 2.94, p < 0.001). Children were more likely to be prescribed oxygen if a pulse oximeter reading was obtained (OR: 1.42, 95% CI:1.25, 1.62, p < 0.001) and if this reading was below 90% (OR: 3.29, 95% CI: 2.82, 3.84, p < 0.001). The interviews indicated that the main barriers to pulse oximeter use are inadequate supply, broken pulse oximeters, and insufficient training on how, when, and why to use pulse oximeters and interpret their results. According to the interviews, variation in pulse oximeter use between hospitals is because of differences in pulse oximeter availability and the leadership of senior doctors in advocating for pulse oximeter use, whereas variation within hospitals over time is due to repair delays. Pulse oximeter use increased over time, likely because of the CIN's feedback to hospitals. When pulse oximeters are used, they are sometimes used incorrectly and some healthcare workers lack confidence in readings that contradict clinical signs. The main limitations of the study are that children with high levels of missing data were not excluded, interview participants might not have been representative, and the interviews did not enable a detailed exploration of differences between counties or across senior management groups. CONCLUSIONS: There remain major challenges to implementing pulse oximetry-a cheap, decades old technology-into routine care in Kenya. Implementation requires efficient and transparent procurement and repair systems to ensure adequate availability. Periodic training, structured clinical records that include prompts, the promotion of pulse oximetry by senior doctors, and monitoring and feedback might also support pulse oximeter use. Our findings can inform strategies to support the use of pulse oximeters to guide prompt and effective treatment, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Without effective implementation, the potential benefits of pulse oximeters and possible hospital cost-savings by targeting oxygen therapy might not be realized.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS Med

Publication Date





Child, Child, Preschool, Female, Health Personnel, Hospitals, Humans, Kenya, Male, Oximetry, Oxygen, Pneumonia