Free and Public

Private health providers are NOT more efficient, accountable or medically effective

In 2009 Oxfam published “Blind Optimism: Challenging the Myths about Private Health Care in Poor Countries,” to help redress what we saw as an international health discourse increasingly dominated by unchallenged private sector advocates.  Some of those same advocates accused Oxfam of being purposefully selective with the evidence.

The health team at Oxfam were therefore very pleased to see the recent publication of a thorough and balanced independent appraisal of peer-reviewed evidence on this topic in PloS Medicine. The study supports many (not all) of our conclusions about both the public and private sector.

In their research Basu et al. assess the comparative performance of the private and public sectors in health across a range of health system performance areas. They are clear that comparative evidence is often lacking and that distinctions between what is public and private are often difficult (for example when public facilities act more like commercial operators by charging fees). With these limitations acknowledged, the authors’ own conclusion states:

‘Studies evaluated in this systematic review do not support the claim that the private sector is usually more efficient, accountable, or medically effective than the public sector; however, the public sector appears frequently to lack timeliness and hospitality towards patients’.   

Like Oxfam, the authors of this comparative study make special note of the World Bank as an influential advocate of public-private partnerships in health, but one whose claims are often unsubstantiated by their own data. The authors raise concerns about a conflict of interest for the World Bank that may undermine the validity of their research and analysis on this topic.

Some highlights from the paper are listed below (though I recommend reading this important article in full – especially for interesting country examples):

Access and responsiveness

  • A significant proportion of services in some developing countries are provided by the private sector but figures vary enormously by country and by income level. When informal or unlicensed providers are excluded, the public sector provided the majority of care in 19 out of 22 low- and middle-income countries for which World Bank data is available.  
  • Studies that measured utilization by income levels tended to find the private sector predominately serves the more affluent. In Colombo, Sri Lanka, where a universal public health service exists, the private sector provided 72% of childhood immunisations for the wealthiest, but only 3% for the poorest.
  • Waiting times are consistently reported to be shorter in private facilities and a number of studies found better hospitality, cleanliness and courtesy and availability of staff in the private sector.


  • Available studies find diagnostic accuracy, adherence to medical management standards and prescription practices are worse in the private sector.
  • Prescribing subtherapeutic doses, failure to provide oral rehydration salts, and prescribing of unnecessary antibiotics were more likely in the private sector, although there were exceptions.
  • Higher rates of potentially unnecessary procedures, particularly C-sections, were reported at private facilities. In South Africa for example, 62% of women delivering in the private sector had C-sections, compared with 18% in the public sector.
  • Two country studies found a lack of drug availability and service provision at public facilities, while surveys of patients’ perceptions on care quality in the public and private sector provided mixed results.

Patient outcomes

  • Public sector provision was associated with higher rates of treatment success for tuberculosis and HIV as well as vaccination. In South Korea for example, TB treatment success rates were 52% in private and 80% in public clinics. Similar figures were found for HIV treatment in Botswana.

Accountability, transparency and regulation

  • While national statistics collected from public sector clinics vary considerably in quality, private healthcare systems tended to lack published data on outcomes altogether. Public-private partnerships also lacked data.
  • Several reports observed significant public spending being used to regulate the private sector in order to improve patient care quality, and with limited effectiveness.

Fairness and equity

  • Financial barriers to care exist in the public and private sector.
  • Private sector services tend to cater for higher income groups with studies showing exclusion and discrimination against poorer patients and women.
  • Several studies suggested the process of privatizing existing public services increased inequalities in the distribution of services.
  • Private contracting and social franchises showed potential for reaching impoverished groups, though findings are tentative because comparisons to the public sector are unavailable.


  • Contrary to prevailing assumptions, the private sector appeared to have lower efficiency than the public sector, resulting from higher drug costs, perverse incentives for unnecessary testing and treatment, greater risks of complications, and weak regulation.
  • The evidence is mixed (and often weak) on the cost of contracting to private providers – increasing expenditure in some countries whilst reducing it in others.

Other important findings

  • Rather than adding resources, several studies reported that growth of the private healthcare sector, whether independently or via public-private partnerships, directly reduced public funds and staff available for public provision.

And on the World Bank….

  • The World Bank has made strong claims that investing in public-private partnerships will improve efficiency and effectiveness in the health sector, yet several of its publications revealed that these assertions were either unsupported by data or the data was not provided in sufficient detail to pass minimal inclusion criteria for this review’.
  • Despite the lack of data about private sector performance, recent initiatives by the World Bank’s International Finance Committee (IFC) are underwriting the expansion of private sector services among low- and middle-income countries. For example in sub-Saharan Africa, the IFC has created a private equity fund to make 30 long-term investments in private health companies. These conflicts of interest pose a potential threat to the validity of World Bank-sponsored studies and raise the need for independent scrutiny.

The evidence from this study shows that while public health systems are often weak and under-resourced they still deliver better quality of care, more equitably and with greater efficiency than the private sector.  The study highlights the tendencies of private providers to serve higher socio-economic groups, have higher risk of low-quality care, create perverse incentives for unnecessary testing and treatment, and suffer from weak regulation. It also suggests there are a number of ways public health systems can do better.  They must be more responsive to patients and more accountable to citizens, improve systems for distributing essential inputs like medicines, and address financial barriers to accessing care (such as formal and informal fees).

These are legitimate challenges that deserve thoughtful attention and action, but they should not be used as evidence of the superiority of private sector approaches. Instead, the policy response to these findings should be very clear: far more effort and resources must be mobilized to maximize the clear advantages of public health systems, rather than further starving them of the resources and support they need to deliver equitable and quality health care for all.


Dying to live: Kenya’s search for universal healthcare

The question of how to raise domestic revenue for health is something that policymakers across Africa continue to grapple with. In recent decades different options have been tried and tested –user fees, small-scale community based health insurance, private insurance schemes, and taxation. Today Kenya, like many countries in the region, is left with a complicated patchwork of different schemes offering different levels of coverage to different population groups. Merging these into a single national risk pool which uses public financing to provide for all citizens will improve access to healthcare and reduce administrative costs.

One way of raising more money for health would be to introduce an earmarked tax on diaspora remittances. “According to the Central Bank of Kenya, money remitted by the diaspora is growing monthly,” says Dr Jane Chuma, a health economist and senior research scientist at Kenya Medical Research Institute in Kilifi. “Last year, over $1 billion (Sh85 billion), higher than the revenue earned from coffee or tourism, was remitted to the country. Putting a little levy on foreign transactions could raise significant money for health. In 2009, Gabon raised $30 million (Sh2.6 billion) from diaspora remittance tax, which they put into health care.”

Another option is to merge existing funds to create a single National Social Health Insurance Fund which pools all the resources that are currently available for health into one pot and stop the duplication of effort. “Tax funds allocated to health, NHIF contributions, community health insurance schemes and donor money, if pooled together, can create a large enough single pool. This will ensure that both the rich and the poor are covered while reducing administration costs. As there will only be one organisation buying services, it will have bargaining power.”

During the NARC government when Charity Ngilu was the Minister for Health, there was some discussion about starting a National Social Health Insurance Fund in Kenya. It was passed by Parliament but the president did not sign it. ‘The big boys’ as Hon. Raila Odinga said in Kenya’s first presidential debate on February 11, ‘shot it down’. These ‘big boys’ included private health insurance schemes and private hospitals.

“What Kenya needs are leaders who are willing to put the private sector to task. That they either be part of these reforms or lose altogether by not working together with the public system under universal health care. There are many innovative ways of using private doctors to provide health care in public facilities. What we lack is political will and leadership,” says Dr Chuma.

Whatever the means of raising money, people need to be confident that the money will not be misused. The history of National Health Insurance Fund is plagued with corruption and there is little trust in the public that they will deliver should they take on the role of National Social Health Insurance Fund. “A new institution would need to be in place to swallow NHIF. It would require re-branding, with a new board and new staff. It shall require a lot of work to build trust in the public health care system where beneficiaries will be expected to seek services,” says Dr Chuma.

Public health facilities need to be closer to the people, be well equipped and charge no fees. In this way, each citizen in the country will be able to walk into any health facility, get whatever treatment is required and walk out without paying a shilling. However, removing charges alone will not be enough to keep patients coming. The public health facilities have to be fully staffed and well stocked with medicines. It is not enough, for example, to say that giving birth at a maternity ward is free and then expect mothers to buy gloves, cotton wool and drugs because there are none available at the facility.

A commonly-held fear of a ‘walk in, walk out’ health facility is that providers will be overwhelmed by people who may not need the service but take advantage of its availability because it is free. This is an unfounded fear because there are other costs related to seeking care like costs of transport or the cost of losing a day’s work to go to a health facility. Few therefore, will come to the facility when they really do not need services.

To reduce costs of payments for treatments, the government will need to invest heavily on preventative measures to reduce the heavy burden of infectious diseases. At the moment more money is going to curative rather than preventative health care. The greatest weapon against infectious communicable disease is good hygiene. This will require the government to provide safe water and improve waste disposal. The second greatest weapon is provision of essential vaccines followed by use of insecticide-treated bed nets. To reduce costs on the National Social Health Insurance Fund, the government will need to invest in these simple tools or face an unnecessary dent on the health fund.

As we usher in a new government in a few weeks, our hopes are high. The President-elect, Uhuru Kenyatta, through his coalition’s manifesto, has promised free primary health care for all Kenyans as well as raising government health financing from 6 percent to 15 percent. Politicians make appealing promises during the campaign period but we will have to wait to see if they will be brave enough to fight for this agenda. The situation is urgent, as annually, about 1.5 million Kenyans are pushed below the national poverty line due to health payments.

Tabitha Mwangi is a freelance science journalist based in Kenya. Her articles have appeared in The Daily Nation and The East African. She has a PhD in epidemiology and worked in the Kenya Medical Research Institute for 10 years before becoming a writer.


The political context of Universal Health Coverage

While reading the outcome statement and background document of the joint World Bank/WHO ministerial level meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC) held last week, two clear issues emerge: The first one is getting political commitment to UHC at the highest government level; the second one is that “fiscal realities (in poor countries in particular) greatly constrain the ability to rely predominantly on public funding. Still, countries do not need to be rich to make progress towards UHC, experience suggest that political commitment is essential.”

The papers seem to suggest that fiscal reality is cast in stone and that within this fiscal reality countries have the political space to move forward to UHC. This approach, in essence, tells us something about the sad situation we have come to live in. A reality in which the financial oligarchy have taken over country democracies, according to Simon Johnson’s The Quiet Coup. A reality in which economic inequalities have an enormous negative impact on health equity and social wellbeing. Untaxed private wealth hinders many countries to finance strong public systems to reach or maintain Universal Health Coverage.

It is not only a problem of poorer countries. We have the same within the European Union. For instance 23.400 “mailbox” companies are registered in the Netherlands, with its infamous tax heaven industry. It lead for instance to Portuguese and Spanish multinationals to avoid paying tax in their respective countries. Both Spain and Portugal have to severely cut their public spending on health expenditures and privatize part of their health services, as required by austerity measures set by the European Union. Even the G20 starts to recognize that the tax avoidance by big business is a big problem for the social development of societies.

These examples merely indicate that the issue of fiscal space and progress on UHC are closely interlinked. The Lancet Article ‘Political and economic aspects of the transition to universal health coverage’ explains it as follows: “UHC will only be achieved if public policies ensure that a large share of this increased spending is pooled through a mechanism that promotes equitable and efficient utilization of care. The exact mechanisms for pooling will depend on social processes and political action that establish the parameters for an acceptable public role in health care. In some cases, the result will be a government that primarily regulates the health-care sector, in other cases a government that finances or directly provides care.” In many emerging economies, such as South-Africa, Indonesia; but also in European countries with traditional generous social security systems, there is strong political pressure to remain attractive for international (financial) investors. In parallel there is similar pressure to reduce public spending on health care and create space for health insurance companies in the market of (mandatory) social insurance packages. Authors have coined this process of tax competition “a race to the bottom in slow motion”, with specific policies becoming less generous without disappearing, or creating a public debt that will eventually force their termination.

The authors also suggest a mechanism to mitigate this race to the bottom, the so called social protection floor. The idea underpinning this initiative is that all states would commit to agreed minimum levels of social protection tailored for their respective country. The UN General Assembly resolution concerning universal health coverage acknowledges the link between universal health coverage and social protection mechanism, and urges member states to give priority to these links within their national social programs and policies.

The contradiction is obvious: There is a strong drive to have Universal Health Coverage included in the post 2015 development agenda and for countries to advance UHC at national level. At the same time these countries are dealing with (global) tax competition, tax evasion and a deregulated financial sector that is playing with casino capital at a global level. It is a good first step that WHO and World Bank work with member states to increase capacity and undertake steps towards universal health coverage. Actors working on advancing UHC inevitably will come to the issue of claiming national policy and fiscal space as a basic macro-economic condition for a country to advance its coverage of social protection and health services. Good examples in these include Brazil and Thailand.

The question is whether all the countries that are now supporting the cause of UHC are willing to make progress on further regulation of the financial sector and reform of their fiscal policies. Are these countries able to agree on global redistribution mechanisms and regulatory mechanism to curb the massive amount of untaxed wealth and casino capital, and hence free considerable resources to fund the national social protection floors? Will countries be able to develop true “progressive” taxation schemes, not merely income or VAT based, but rather on wealth and CO2 emission? Or do we want rather global philanthropy to provide the complimentary funds for advances in UHC and social security?

Bottom line: Universal Health coverage is in essence linked to political demands, choices and inherent power relations, both at the national and global level. If we all agree to have UHC included in the post 2015 agenda, then we should be willing to be truly involved in the political and ideological battle that will enfold over the coming period.

Remco van de Pas is a Senior Health Policy Advocate at Wemos

This post was first published as an editorial in MMI Network news, 26 February 2013. Reposted here with permission.


Global Health Check was created by Anna Marriott and is currently edited by Mohga Kamal-Yanni