Critical comparative analysis of data sources toward understanding referral during pregnancy and childbirth: three perspectives from Nigeria

Emma Radovich, Aduragbemi Banke-Thomas, Oona M. R. Campbell, Michael Ezeanochie, Uchenna Gwacham-Anisiobi, Adedapo B. A. Ande, Lenka Benova

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Background The highest risk of maternal and perinatal deaths occurs during and shortly after childbirth and is preventable if functional referral systems enable women to reach appropriate health services when obstetric complications occur. Rising numbers of deliveries in health facilities, including in high mortality settings like Nigeria, require formalised coordination across the health system to ensure that women and newborns get to the right level of care, at the right time. This study describes and critically assesses the extent to which referral and its components can be captured using three different data sources from Nigeria, examining issues of data quality, validity, and usefulness for improving and monitoring obstetric care systems. Methods The study included three data sources on referral for childbirth care in Nigeria: a nationally representative household survey, patient records from multiple facilities in a state, and patient records from the apex referral facility in a city. We conducted descriptive analyses of the extent to which referral status and components were captured across the three sources. We also iteratively developed a visual conceptual framework to guide our critical comparative analysis. Results We found large differences in the proportion of women referred, and this reflected the different denominators and timings of the referral in each data source. Between 16 and 34% of referrals in the three sources originated in government hospitals, and lateral referrals (origin and destination facility of the same level) were observed in all three data sources. We found large gaps in the coverage of key components of referral as well as data gaps where this information was not routinely captured in facility-based sources. Conclusions Our analyses illustrated different perspectives from the national- to facility-level in the capture of the extent and components of obstetric referral. By triangulating across multiple data sources, we revealed the strengths and gaps within each approach in building a more complete picture of obstetric referral. We see our visual framework as assisting further research efforts to ensure all referral pathways are captured in order to better monitor and improve referral systems for women and newborns.

Original languageEnglish
Article number927
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Delivery, Obstetric
  • Female
  • Health Facilities
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Information Storage and Retrieval
  • Maternal Health Services
  • Nigeria
  • Pregnancy
  • Referral and Consultation


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