In an effort to improve population health, many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have expanded access to public primary care facilities and removed user fees for services in these facilities. However, a growing literature suggests that many patients bypass nearby primary care facilities to seek care at more distant or higher-level facilities. Patients in urban areas, a growing segment of the population in LMICs, generally have more options for where to seek care than patients in rural areas. However, evidence on care-seeking trajectories and bypassing patterns in urban areas remains relatively scarce.
We obtained a complete list of public health facilities and interviewed randomly selected informal sector households across 31 urban areas in Lusaka District, Zambia. All households and facilities listed were geocoded, and care-seeking trajectories mapped across the entire urban area. We analyzed three types of bypassing: i) not using health centers or health posts for primary care; ii) seeking care outside of the residential neighborhood; iii) directly seeking care at teaching hospitals.
A total of 620 households were interviewed, linked to 88 health facilities. Among 571 adults who had recently sought non-emergency care, 65% sought care at a hospital. Among 141 children who recently sought care for diarrhea, cough, fever, or fast breathing, 34% sought care at a hospital. 71% of adults bypassed primary care facilities, 26% bypassed health centers and hospitals close to them for more distant facilities, and 8% directly sought care at a teaching hospital. Bypassing was also observed for 59% of children, who were more likely to seek care outside of the formal care sector, with 21% of children treated at drug shops or pharmacies.
The results presented here strongly highlight the complexity of urban health systems. Most adult patients in Lusaka do not use public primary health facilities for non-emergency care, and heavily rely on pharmacies and drug shops for treatment of children. Major efforts will likely be needed if the government wants to instate health centers as the principal primary care access point in this setting.