Aims: The aim of this study is to describe the use of public health services in different social and ethnic groups and to explore the implementation of user fee exemption in a mountainous area in Vietnam.
Methods: A cross-sectional household survey with a structured questionnaire and a four-week diary were used to collect information on illnesses, health seeking behaviour and socioeconomic factors. Three communes in a mountainous district in Northern Vietnam were selected and a random sample of 1,452 individuals in 300 households was drawn.
Results: Self-medication was most common (57%) while 30% used public health services when suffering from a health problem. Persons living far from health services attended public health services less frequently than the others (adjusted OR = 0.28; 95% CI 0.15-0.51). This was especially the case for ethnic minorities who were less likely to use public health services than the others were (adjusted OR = 0.47; 95% CI 0.25-0.87). Persons with mild conditions tended to use public health services less than those with more severe conditions (OR = 0.19; 95% CI 0.10-0.37). Health services use was similar among women and men, but the total expenditure per visit was higher for men. Almost no patients supposed to get free attendance had been exempted from user fees.
Conclusions: It was found that there was a geographical inequity in use of public health services while there was relatively equal use of these services between social, gender, and ethnic groups. Long distance in combination with failure of the fee exemption may increase inequity in use of health services in remote and isolated areas. These observations contribute to the basis for implementation of the Vietnamese health policy, emphasizing efficiency and equity.