Intended for healthcare professionals


Private health care in developing countries

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 01 September 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:463

If it is to work, it must start from what users need

  1. Anthony B Zwi, senior lecturer in health policy and epidemiology (,
  2. Ruairi Brugha, senior lecturer in public health (,
  3. Elizabeth Smith, private sector specialist (
  1. Health Policy Unit, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London WC1E 7HT
  2. Options Consultancy Services, London W1P 5RT

    Private healthcare provision is growing in low and middle income countries. 1 2 The poor, as well as the rich, often seek health care from private providers, including for conditions of public health importance such as malaria, tuberculosis, and sexually transmitted infections. 3 4 5 The reasons cited by users include better and more flexible access, shorter waiting, greater confidentiality, and greater sensitivity to user needs. 1 6 International policymakers are currently recommending greater use of private providers 7 8 9 on the grounds that they offer consumers greater choice; increase competition in the healthcare market; and remove state responsibility for service provision, thereby encouraging its role as regulator and guarantor. We should, however, be concerned.

    When examined, the quality of care offered by many private providers is poor. 1 2 10 Furthermore, poor people spend a greater proportion of their income on health care (private or public) than do the rich, often using less qualified or totally untrained private providers.

    We have recommended three objectives in relation to the private provision of care for conditions of public health importance: widening access, improving quality, and ensuring non-exploitative prices.11 None of these will be simple to achieve; and multifaceted interventions, involving policymakers, providers, and …

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