Background: As part of its ongoing healthcare reform, the Hong Kong Government introduced a voucher scheme, intended for encouraging older patients to use primary healthcare services in the private sector, thereby, reducing burden on the overwhelmed public sector. The voucher program is also considered one of the strategies to further develop the public private partnership in healthcare, a policy direction of high political priority as indicated in the Chief Executive Policy Address in 2008-09. This study assessed whether the voucher scheme, as implemented so far, has reached its intended goals, and how it might be further improved in the context of public-private partnership.
Methods: This was a cross-sectional study using structured questionnaires by face-to-face interviews with older people aged 70 or above in Hong Kong, the target group of the demand-side voucher program.
Results: 71.2% of 1,026 older people were aware of the new voucher scheme but only 35.0% had ever used it. The majority of the older people used the vouchers for acute curative services in the private sector (82.4%) and spent less on preventive services. Despite the provision of vouchers valued US$30 per year as an incentive to encourage the use of private primary care services, after 12-months of implementation, 66.2% of all respondents agreed with the statement that "the voucher scheme does not change their health seeking behaviours on seeing public or private healthcare professionals". The most common reasons for no change in their behaviours included "I am used to seeing doctors in the public system" and "The amount of the subsidy is too low". Those who usually used a mix of public and private doctors and those with better self-reported health condition compared to last year were more likely to perceive a change in their own health seeking behaviours.
Conclusions: Our study showed that despite a reasonably high awareness of the voucher scheme, its usage was low. The voucher alone was not enough to realize the government's policy of greater use of the private primary care services. Greater publicity and more variety of media promotion would increase awareness but the effectiveness of vouchers in changing older people's behaviour needs to be revisited. Designating vouchers for use of preventive services with evidence-based practice could be considered. In addition to the demand-side subsidies, improving transparency and comparability of private services against the public sector might be necessary.