The Bumpy Road to Universal Health Coverage : Access to Primary and Emergency Care in Rural Tropical Ecuador

Abstract: Background: By the turn of the new millennium 84% of families in rural coastal Ecuador had difficulties to access health services. A health reform some years earlier to improve this situation had not been implemented. In 2001, the non-governmental organization (NGO) Foundation Human Nature together with a rural population established a primary health care center in North-Western Ecuador. A public private partnership with the Ministry of Public Health was formed. Services depended on out-of-pocket payments, restricting the poor’s access to care. In order to increase access to primary and emergency care, Foundation Human Nature planned to establish a community-based health insurance. In the meantime, a major health reform was initiated by a new government in 2008. It aimed at universal health coverage, providing qualitative services for all based on primary health care, while ensuring protection from financial hardship. The aims of this thesis were to appraise the feasibility of community- based health insurance in Ecuador; to study how rural stakeholders perceived the 2008 reform and its effects on rural health services; to explore the local population’s perception of the NGO in service delivery; and to measure the scope and describe the nature of perceived emergencies, the related health care seeking behavior and health expenditure. Methods: Quantitative and qualitative methods were applied to tackle the research objectives. Data collection for the health insurance study and the study of perceived emergencies was carried out through cross-sectional household surveys. For each of the studies 210 households were sampled with two-stage cluster sampling. Structured questionnaires were used with on the spot household interviews. Focus group discussions with local stakeholders were performed to explore their perceived effects of the 2008 health reform. The population’s perception of the NGO was also studied through focus group discussions, which were complemented by key-informant interviews with local stakeholders. Inductive qualitative content analysis, focusing on the manifest content was applied. Results: 69% of interviewees were willing to join the presented community-based health insurance scheme for 30 US$ per household and year. Attitudes towards the scheme were positive and 92% of interviewees stated they would increase their health service utilization with affiliation. The implementation of the 2008 health reform was perceived as top-down, lacking communication. However, the reform’s effects were mainly perceived as positive with free medical attendance and drugs. Increased service utilization was described as leading to a relative shortage of drugs and appointments. Access problems for remote dwellers were found, who were described of having to seek private care, also in emergencies. The NGO and its services were perceived positively by the population due to health care improvements in the region. The structure of the public private partnership was unclear, leading to dissatisfaction. Community participation was found to be rather weak. Perceived emergencies occurred to at least 90/1,000 inhabitants in the past year. Fever, traumatic injury and abdominal pain were the most frequent chief complaints. The first contacted providers in 57% of all cases were private for-profit providers, including traditional healers. Public health services treated one third of all cases. Health expenditure was found to be high and catastrophic health expenditure occurred in 24% of all cases. Conclusions: Prior to the 2008 reform community-based health insurance was found to be feasible in the study region. This financing instrument may have a role in the post-reform system, to cover services that the government does not yet sufficiently provide. The effects of the 2008 reform were mainly perceived positively, but an adjustment of the system is needed to improve the relative lack of drugs and appointments, especially for remote dwellers. Free health services may not be sufficient to reach universal health coverage for patients with perceived emergencies. Changes in public emergency departments and improved financial protection for emergency patients may improve the situation. The NGO’s role was perceived positively by the population. A lack of communication about the public private partnership and relatively weak community participation restricted the NGO’s full potential and should be improved.

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