Demand-side financial incentive (DSF) is an emerging strategy to improve health seeking behavior and health status in many low- and middle-income countries. This narrative synthesis assessed the demand- and supply-side effects of DSF. Forty one electronic data bases were searched to screen relevant experimental and quasi-experimental study designs. Out of the 64 selected papers, 28 were eligible for this review and they described 19 DSF initiatives across Asia, Africa and Latin America. There were three categories of initiatives, namely long-run multi-sectoral programs or LMPs (governmental); long-run health-exclusive programs (governmental); and short-run health-exclusive initiatives (both governmental and non-governmental). Irrespective of the nature of incentives and initiatives, all DSF programs could achieve their expected behavioral outcomes on healthcare seeking and utilization substantially. However, there existed a few negative and perverse outcomes on health seeking behavior and DSF's impact on continuous health seeking choices (e.g. bed net use and routine adult health check-ups) was mixed. Their effects on maternal health status, diarrhea, malaria and out-of-pocket expenditure were under-explored; while chronic non-communicable diseases were not directly covered by any DSF programs. DSF could reduce HIV prevalence and child deaths, and enhance nutritional and growth status of children. The direction and magnitude of their effects on health status was elastic to the evaluation design employed. On health system benefits, despite prioritizing on vulnerable groups, DSF's substantial effect on the poorest of the poor was mixed compared to that on the relatively richer groups. Though DSF initiatives intended to improve service delivery status, many could not optimally do so, especially to meet the additionally generated demand for care. Causal pathways of DSF's effects should be explored in-depth for mid-course corrections and cross-country learning on their design, implementation and evaluation. More policy-specific analyses on LMPs are needed to assess how 'multi-sectoral' approaches can be cost-effective and sustainable in the long run compared to 'health exclusive' incentives.
Keywords: Demand-side financing; Health care delivery strategy; Low- and middle-income countries; Primary healthcare.
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