Free and Public

Examining evidence: the private for-profit healthcare sector and Universal Health Coverage (UHC) Jessica Hamer, Health Policy Adviser, Oxfam GB

On 2nd July 2015 at the International Conference on Public Policy (ICPP), Oxfam, together with Dr. Anuj Kapilashrami of the Global Public Health Unit, University of Edinburgh, convened a session entitled ‘Private sector and Universal Health Coverage: Examining evidence and deconstructing rhetoric’.

As an earlier blog explained, the session aimed to look at new and existing evidence on the role of the private for-profit sector in health, and to critically evaluate this in the context of achieving UHC in low- and middle-income countries. The five papers presented at the session looked at a wide range of private sector actors in health care delivery but raised a number of common themes and challenges.


High costs, and continued challenges around out-of-pocket spending (OOPS), was a common theme across the papers. One paper presented by Asha Kilaru, examined state insurance schemes in Karnataka, India, and found that OOPS were prevalent across the schemes, even where all costs should be covered. The study found 93% of those insured by at least one government scheme sought care from a private hospital, but only 8% reported receiving completely free care. Where healthcare was provided for free, additional costs (such as multiple hospital referrals for different tests and treatment) meant OOPS still occurred.  It seems that this was a problem particularly associated with private provision of healthcare, as evidenced by one respondents’ interview:

‘Only the operation [C-section] was free. At the government hospital, a C-section would be only Rs3-4000, but we went to a private hospital since we had insurance and wound up spending so much. It seems like government are agents that send us to a private hospital. In this yojana [Yeshasvini insurance scheme] the government spends and we also spend’.[i]

Difficulties faced in controlling the level of fees charged by private providers were also highlighted. In a paper by Jane Doherty examining the for-profit private healthcare sector in East and Southern Africa, it was noted that out of sixteen countries, ‘no country places a ceiling on the prices that its private hospitals may charge’ (although there may be some limitations to reimbursement payments made by insurers in two of the countries). The paper also explained that ‘there is little control of the fees charged by health professionals or limits placed on their total incomes, except in Kenya’.

Equity and access for the poorest

Challenges in controlling OOPS and the overall costs of private healthcare present significant obstacles to achieving UHC, and especially to ensuring access to healthcare for the poorest. Another recurring barrier to equitable access highlighted is the location of private services. A paper mapping India’s private healthcare provision by Mukhopadhyay et al highlighted that urban, metropolitan areas benefit from the majority of private hospitals, while in rural areas, disproportionately populated by poorer people, the private sector is largely comprised of individual practitioners. Moreover, almost half of India’s private hospitals were located in cities with a population of more than 5 million. Mumbai alone has 16% of all India’s private hospitals.

Poor quality and regulatory challenges

Usar’s paper investigating perceptions of shops selling medicines in Nigeria highlighted major concerns around their ‘pervasive regulatory infringements’ – and especially the selling of drugs beyond the scope of their licenses – as well as the lack of training of staff. The same paper pointed to the challenges of regulating medicine vendors in Nigeria in order to improve their quality, highlighting that regulation has been constrained by inadequate funding, weak institutional capacity, the often-remote location of the shops, and inter-regulatory agency conflicts.

Doherty’s research examining East and Southern Africa’s for-profit private providers pointed out that both an absence of regulation, and poor enforcement of regulation where it exists, contribute to problematic dynamics around private sector healthcare actors there. We have already heard how little legislation exists to control costs within the sector, but the study also found that that there is almost no regulation that guards against anti-competitive behaviour. Furthermore, ‘there is little monitoring by governments of quality and health outcomes, or attention to how the private health sector supports national health objectives’.

The same paper flags additional challenges to regulation, including patchy regulatory frameworks, the high cost of introducing new regulation, limited available information on the private sector, and the resistance of key stakeholders to regulation, or their “capture” of regulation to safeguard their own interests. In South Africa, for example, attempts to regulate dispensing fees for pharmacists have been resisted heavily.

Impact on the public system

Doherty concludes that ‘legislative gaps and enforcement problems, together with the fact that prices are not contained in any meaningful way, either through price controls or active reimbursement mechanisms, mean that for-profit private care in the region is likely to become increasingly unaffordable for any but the wealthiest’. Yet, if the for-profit private sector is poorly regulated and potentially growing, what impact could this have on the public health system left for the majority of the population?

Doherty points to South Africa as an example, where one impact of a strong private sector has been the ‘brain drain’ of human resources away from the public sector to much more lucrative private providers. The final paper by Jisha C. J., examining a state health insurance scheme in India (Kerala), highlights an additional worrying trend, where some private hospitals register in the state insurance scheme, only to de-register themselves once they have attracted some new patients to their facility. It can be assumed this trend will waste public resources spent on administration, as well as raising serious concerns about both equitable access and the behaviour of private providers.


The evidence presented at the Oxfam-University of Edinburgh session makes a further contribution to the debates over the role of the private sector in achieving UHC. While the papers can only shed light on the specific areas they analyse, it is clear that the wider themes they highlight chime with the findings of broader studies on the comparative roles of the public and private sectors.

Oxfam hopes to continue these discussions further, and will be hosting additional blogs on Global Health Check from the contributing authors and discussants exploring the details of the evidence presented in the coming months.



[i] The paper notes that ‘while it is claimed that [the] Yeshasvini [scheme] is self-funded, it received Rs. 40 crore as a government grant in 2012-13 and Rs. 45 crore in the 2013-14 budget’. Rs 40 crore is equivalent to more than USD 6 million while Rs 45 crore is equivalent to almost USD 7 million.



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