Introduction: Uganda began implementation of a structural adjustment programme (SAP) in July 1994 in order to improve social services. The decentralization of health services administration to district level was intended to improve the quality of health services and pharmaceutical supplies in the hospitals, with resultant increase in the level of utilization of health facilities.
Objective: This study evaluated the impact of the decentralization policy on health facility utilization; availability of essential drugs, and prescribing patterns for acute respiratory infections (ARI), diarrhoea, and malaria in two district hospitals in Uganda.
Design: Mixed method evaluation design, involving both quantitative and qualitative methods. Time series analyses of data from utilization, pharmacy stock, and prescription records before and after the policy change. Key informant interviews and focus group discussions to obtain information on perceptions and attitude of stakeholders on the process of the policy implementation. STUDY SETTING AND POPULATION: The study was conducted in two district hospitals in northern Uganda. A total of seven years of utilization and pharmacy stock data including 5040 patient records from the hospitals were analysed retrospectively. In-depth interviews were conducted among 11 politicians from each district; 100 open-ended questionnaires were administered to patients in each hospital; 86 health care workers were interviewed using semi-structured questionnaires; and focus group discussions were conducted with 23 health care providers.
Main outcome measures: Facility utilization was evaluated by average monthly attendance in the outpatient department and paediatric ward admissions. Availability was assessed as average number of drugs per month. Prescribing indicator outcomes included: for malaria, percent chloroquine tablets and percent chloroquine injection; for ARI, percent receiving antibiotics or injections; for diarrhoea, use of oral rehydration salts (ORS), antidiarrhoeal mixtures, and antibiotics. The average number of drugs prescribed assessed polypharmacy.
Results: There was a general increase in patient attendance in both hospitals, although the initial increase later declined in Apac. Drug availability was erratic and not always adequate. The situation was better in Lira where funding for drug procurement was more accessible. Prescribing patterns varied, with improvement in some indicators, while others showed no change or even worsened.
Conclusions: The decentralization policy led to increased utilization of health facilities. The perception was that the policy was good because it "empowered the community in terms of creating a sense of responsibility in the stakeholders, and a sense of ownership that facilitated sustainability" of public institutions. In spite of the views expressed by the stakeholders, the policy failed to improve drug shortages, inefficient utilization of resources, and low morale among hospital staff. Staff should be re-trained and better remunerated in order to cope with the implementation of the policy. Local politicians should clearly understand their roles and responsibility under the new policy. Efficient utilization of funds at all levels of the district administrative structures should be ensured.