Delays in accessing care for malaria and other diseases can lead to disease progression, and user fees are a known barrier to accessing health care. Governments are introducing free health care to improve health outcomes. Free health care affects treatment seeking, and it is therefore assumed to lead to improved health outcomes, but there is no direct trial evidence of the impact of removing out-of-pocket payments on health outcomes in developing countries. This trial was designed to test the impact of free health care on health outcomes directly.
Methods and Findings
2,194 households containing 2,592 Ghanaian children under 5 y old were randomised into a prepayment scheme allowing free primary care including drugs, or to a control group whose families paid user fees for health care (normal practice); 165 children whose families had previously paid to enrol in the prepayment scheme formed an observational arm. The primary outcome was moderate anaemia (haemoglobin [Hb] < 8 g/dl); major secondary outcomes were health care utilisation, severe anaemia, and mortality. At baseline the randomised groups were similar. Introducing free primary health care altered the health care seeking behaviour of households; those randomised to the intervention arm used formal health care more and nonformal care less than the control group. Introducing free primary health care did not lead to any measurable difference in any health outcome. The primary outcome of moderate anaemia was detected in 37 (3.1%) children in the control and 36 children (3.2%) in the intervention arm (adjusted odds ratio 1.05, 95% confidence interval 0.66–1.67). There were four deaths in the control and five in the intervention group. Mean Hb concentration, severe anaemia, parasite prevalence, and anthropometric measurements were similar in each group. Families who previously self-enrolled in the prepayment scheme were significantly less poor, had better health measures, and used services more frequently than those in the randomised group.
In the study setting, removing out-of-pocket payments for health care had an impact on health care-seeking behaviour but not on the health outcomes measured.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov (#NCT00146692).
Evelyn Ansah and colleagues report on whether removing user fees has an impact on health care-seeking behavior and health outcomes in households with children in Ghana.
Every year, about 10 million children worldwide die before their fifth birthday. About half these deaths occur in developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, 166 children out of every 1,000 die before they are five. A handful of preventable diseases—acute respiratory infections, diarrhea, malaria, measles, and HIV/AIDS—are responsible for most of these deaths. For all these diseases, delays in accessing medical care contribute to the high death rate. In the case of malaria, for example, children are rarely taken to a clinic or hospital (formal health care) when they first develop symptoms, which include fever, chills, and anemia (lack of red blood cells). Instead, they are taken to traditional healers or given home remedies (informal health care). When they are finally taken to a clinic, it is often too late to save their lives. Many factors contribute to this delay in seeking formal health care. Sometimes, health care simply isn't available. In other instances, parents may worry about the quality of the service provided or may not seek formal health care because of their sociocultural beliefs. Finally, many parents cannot afford the travel costs and loss of earnings involved in taking their child to a clinic or the cost of the treatment itself.
Why Was This Study Done?
The financial cost of seeking formal health care is often the major barrier to accessing health care in poor countries. Consequently, the governments of several developing countries have introduced free health care in an effort to improve their nation's health. Such initiatives have increased the use of formal health care in several African countries; the introduction of user fees in Ghana in the early 1980s had the opposite effect. It is generally assumed that an increase in formal health care utilization improves health—but is this true? In this study, the researchers investigate the effect of removing direct payment for health care on health service utilization and health outcomes in Ghanaian children in a randomized controlled trial (a trial in which participants are randomly assigned to an “intervention” group or “control” group and various predefined outcomes are measured).
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers enrolled nearly 2,600 children under the age of 5 y living in a poor region of Ghana. Half were assigned to the group in which a prepayment scheme (paid for by the trial) provided free primary and basic secondary health care—this was the intervention arm. The rest were assigned to the control group in which families paid for health care. The trial's main outcome was the percentage of children with moderate anemia at the end of the malaria transmission season, an indicator of the effect of the intervention on malaria-related illness. Other outcomes included health care utilization (calculated from household diaries), severe anemia, and death. The researchers report that the children in the intervention arm attended formal health care facilities slightly more often and informal health care providers slightly less often than those in the control arm. About 3% of the children in both groups had moderate anemia at the end of the malaria transmission season. In addition, similar numbers of deaths, cases of severe anemia, fever episodes, and known infections with the malaria parasite were recorded in both groups of children.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that, in this setting, the removal of out-of-pocket payments for health care changed health care-seeking behavior but not health outcomes in children. This lack of a measured effect does not necessarily mean that the provision of free health care has no effect on children's health—it could be that the increase in health care utilization in the intervention arm compared to the control arm was too modest to produce a clear effect on health. Alternatively, in Ghana, the indirect costs of seeking health care may be more important than the direct cost of paying for treatment. Although the findings of this trial may not be generalizable to other countries, they nevertheless raise the possibility that providing free health care might not be the most cost-effective way of improving health in all developing countries. Importantly, they also suggest that changes in health care utilization should not be used in future trials as a proxy measure of improvements in health.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000007.
This research article is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Valéry Ridde and Slim Haddad
The World Health Organization provides information on child health and on global efforts to reduce child mortality, Millennium Development Goal 4; it also provides information about health in Ghana
The United Nations Web site provides further information on all the Millennium Development Goals, which were agreed to by the nations of the world in 2000 with the aim of ending extreme poverty by 2015 (in several languages)
The UK Department for International Development also provides information on the progress that is being made toward reducing child mortality