Background The mortality impact of pulse oximetry use during infant and childhood pneumonia management at the primary healthcare level in low-income countries is unknown. We sought to determine mortality outcomes of infants and children diagnosed and referred using clinical guidelines with or without pulse oximetry in Malawi. Methods and findings We conducted a data linkage study of prospective health facility and community case and mortality data. We matched prospectively collected community health worker (CHW) and health centre (HC) outpatient data to prospectively collected hospital and community-based mortality surveillance outcome data, including episodes followed up to and deaths within 30 days of pneumonia diagnosis amongst children 0–59 months old. All data were collected in Lilongwe and Mchinji districts, Malawi, from January 2012 to June 2014. We determined differences in mortality rates using <90% and <93% oxygen saturation (SpO2) thresholds and World Health Organization (WHO) and Malawi clinical guidelines for referral. We used unadjusted and adjusted (for age, sex, respiratory rate, and, in analyses of HC data only, Weight for Age Z-score [WAZ]) regression to account for interaction between SpO2 threshold (pulse oximetry) and clinical guidelines, clustering by child, and CHW or HC catchment area. We matched CHW and HC outpatient data to hospital inpatient records to explore roles of pulse oximetry and clinical guidelines on hospital attendance after referral. From 7,358 CHW and 6,546 HC pneumonia episodes, we linked 417 CHW and 695 HC pneumonia episodes to 30-day mortality outcomes: 16 (3.8%) CHW and 13 (1.9%) HC patients died. SpO2 thresholds of <90% and <93% identified 1 (6%) of the 16 CHW deaths that were unidentified by integrated community case management (iCCM) WHO referral protocol and 3 (23%) and 4 (31%) of the 13 HC deaths, respectively, that were unidentified by the integrated management of childhood illness (IMCI) WHO protocol. Malawi IMCI referral protocol, which differs from WHO protocol at the HC level and includes chest indrawing, identified all but one of these deaths. SpO2 < 90% predicted death independently of WHO danger signs compared with SpO2 ≥ 90%: HC Risk Ratio (RR), 9.37 (95% CI: 2.17–40.4, p = 0.003); CHW RR, 6.85 (1.15–40.9, p = 0.035). SpO2 < 93% was also predictive versus SpO2 ≥ 93% at HC level: RR, 6.68 (1.52–29.4, p = 0.012). Hospital referrals and outpatient episodes with referral decision indications were associated with mortality. A substantial proportion of those referred were not found admitted in the inpatients within 7 days of referral advice. All 12 deaths in 73 hospitalised children occurred within 24 hours of arrival in the hospital, which highlights delay in appropriate care seeking. The main limitation of our study was our ability to only match 6% of CHW episodes and 11% of HC episodes to mortality outcome data. Conclusions Pulse oximetry identified fatal pneumonia episodes at HCs in Malawi that would otherwise have been missed by WHO referral guidelines alone. Our findings suggest that pulse oximetry could be beneficial in supplementing clinical signs to identify children with pneumonia at high risk of mortality in the outpatient setting in health centres for referral to a hospital for appropriate management.
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