Wednesday 25 September 2013

When free universal healthcare isn't free and isn't universal: a case study in TB treatment from Burkina Faso

As the term of  the current Millennium Development Goals reaches an end in 2015, healthcare workers and reporters worldwide are assessing the efficacy of different global health and development approaches over the last few years. The necessity of improving global health has been one of the highest priorities of development practitioners and activists, the touchstone being universal access and free access.

One project study, which aimed to provide free treatment for tuberculosis patients in Burkina Faso, caught my eye because it illustrates the subtle challenges and difficulties (as well as areas of success) which arise when it comes to the practicalities of delivering healthcare which is intended to be both free and universal. The findings of the research will be vital in shaping world healthcare policies when it comes to the treatment, control and prevention of TB after the timeframe of the current Development Goals.

Based on meticulous year-long research by Samia Laokri, Olivier Weil, K Maxime Drabo, S Mathurin Dembelé, Benoît Kafando & Bruno Dujardin, the study - an abstract is provided here by the World Health Organisation - demonstrates the flaws of a generalised or sweeping analysis, starting with the "theory [that] the removal of user fees puts health services within reach of everyone, including the very poor." They warn,
In the poorer countries of the world, where most people live on less than US$ 2 per day and expenditure on health care can plunge patients and their families into extreme poverty, the removal of user fees for health is seen as a matter of real urgency. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be enough to ensure truly universal coverage.
A full version of the report is here and I have provided my overview and analysis below. 

The study I'm focusing on, which is part of a larger project [see points seven and eight here], is based on the findings of rounds of interviews with 242 patients who tested positive for pulmonary tuberculosis across the six rural districts of Bousse, Koupela, Ouargaye, Zabre, Ziniare and Zorgho and who were enrolled in the national TB control programme. As the writers state,
The median direct costs associated with tuberculosis were estimated at 101 United States dollars (US$) per patient. These costs represented 23% of the mean annual income of a patient’s household. During the course of their care, three quarters of the interviewed patients apparently faced “catastrophic” health expenditure. 
Their analysis of the cause of this US$101 direct cost is interesting: around US$ 45 of the cost was not down to the inherent cost of the medicines or treatments themselves, but to failures in the broader health system and policies; the researchers cites access, medical consultations, out of pocket expenses, unofficial payments to medical professionals and lost wages from their day jobs for both diagnosis and treatment (or even redundancy due to repeated absence). While individual patients bore these costs by strategising. economising and accommodating within their households and negotiating or receiving community and extended-family support, this accommodation weakened their overall economic standing and jeopardised their position in the long term. There was a likelihood of established savings being used, of families being forced to decrease consumption to save money, being forced into the sale of goods or services to raise money or to take out loans to raise money. When this seemingly small monetary figure accounts for nearly a quarter of each household's income, given the generalised socio-economic context of poverty or near-poverty amongst the population studied, there are grave consequences in terms of increased social inequality and economic instability; the stigma of suffering from TB; the 'social debt' incurred by help received by family members and the wider community; and a greater improbability of proper treatment being sought, for all these reasons. The illness itself increased instability, with the researchers citing an average loss of 45 days of work lost by sufferers across the research year from 2007 to 2008. 

The 23% percentage figure of annual income cited for TB treatment costs is alarming as the threshold for a definition of "catastrophic" expenditure which represents an excessive burden on a patient or their household in the rural low-income communities in the study, is 10%. The study analysed all the types of expenses and costs, including non-medical and non-financial costs, which arose as a result of suffering, diagnosis and treatment and identified various failures and weaknesses in the system. They include necessary services that were not covered by the free treatment package (which include diagnosis by spit sample, anti TB drugs and repeat smears to determine treatment outcome) and services that were not necessary but where payment was required. The report states,
Only 2% of the patients interviewed...reported that they had received completely free tuberculosis care. 
The challenges above, as well as other failures in patient treatment (such as extended time periods required for diagnosis and repeat procedures) explain why the rates of TB detection and cure are lower than might be hoped given the MDG and the adoption of international recommendations for TB control. The researchers state that what are necessary are solutions which pull in all practitioners, "political decision-makers, managers of health programmes and health services" to develop meaningful responses and suggest a number of measures including the decentralisation of diagnosis and treatment so that patients do not have to travel, improving community care to enable early detection, help for the poorest households, supporting healthcare providers and also supporting patients not just financially but socially and psychologically through dialogue with former patients. They also call for a rigorous assessment of 'free' healthcare systems with a multilayered analysis of economic and social consequences aimed at fine-tuning policy, identifying and rectifying faults in the system, guaranteeing efficiency and helping (rather than exploiting or exacerbating the problems of) the most vulnerable.

Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow for the International Reporting Project. She is reporting on issues of global health and development.