Primary healthcare seeking behaviour of low-income patients across the public and private health sectors in South Africa

By  Kerensa Govender  Sarah Girdwood  Daniel Letswalo  Dr. Lawrence Long  Dr Gesine Meyer-Rath  Dr. Jacqui Miot  |  | 


The proposed National Health Insurance (NHI) system aims to re-engineer primary healthcare (PHC) in South Africa, envisioning both private sector providers and public sector clinics as independent contracting units to the NHI Fund. In 2017, 16% of the South African population had private medical insurance and predominately utilised private providers. However, it is estimated that up to 28% of the population access private PHC services, with a meaningful segment of the low-income, uninsured population paying for these services out-of-pocket. The study objective was to characterise the health-seeking behaviour of low-income, patients accessing PHC services in both the public and private sectors, patient movement between sectors, and factors influencing their facility choice.

We conducted once-off patient interviews on a random sample of 153 patients at 7 private PHC providers (primarily providing services to the low-income mostly uninsured patient population) and their matched public PHC clinic (7 facilities).

The majority of participants were economically active (96/153, 63%), 139/153 (91%) did not have health insurance, and 104/153 (68%) earned up to $621/month. A multiple response question found affordability (67%) and convenience (60%) were ranked as the most important reasons for choosing to usually access care at public clinics (48%); whilst convenience (71%) and quality of care (59%) were key reasons for choosing the private sector (32%). There is movement between sectors: 23/76 (30%) of those interviewed at a private facility and 8/77 (10%) of those interviewed at a public facility indicated usually accessing PHC services at a mix of private and public facilities. Results indicate cycling between the private and public sectors with different factors influencing facility choice.

It is imperative to understand the potential impact on where PHC services are accessed once affordability is mitigated through the NHI as this has implications on planning and contracting of services under the NHI.