Objective: To document the effects of the abolition of user fees on utilization of health services in Uganda with emphasis on poor and vulnerable groups.
Methods: A longitudinal study using quantitative and qualitative methods was carried out in 106 health facilities across the country. Health records were reviewed to determine trends in overall utilization patterns and use among vulnerable groups. A modification of wealth ranking as defined by the Uganda Poverty Participatory Assessment Project was used to categorize households by socio-economic status in order to compare utilization by the poor against that of other socio-economic groups.
Findings: There was a marked increase in utilization in all population groups that was fluctuating in nature. The increase in utilization varied from 26% in public referral facilities in 2001, rising to 55% in 2002 compared with 2000. The corresponding figures for the lower level facilities were 44% and 77%, respectively. Increase in utilization among the poor was more than for other socio-economic categories. Women utilized health services more than men both before and after cost-sharing. Higher increases in utilization were noted among the over-five age group compared with the under-fives. There were no increases in utilization for preventive and inpatient services. With respect to quality of care, there were fewer drug stock-outs in 2002 compared with 2000 and 2001. There was no deterioration of other indicators such as cleanliness, compound maintenance and staff availability reported.
Conclusion: The study suggests that there is a financial barrier created by cost-sharing that decreases access to services, especially among the poor in Uganda. However, further studies are needed to clarify issues of utilization by age and gender.