Background: In 2005, the Indian government launched the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) to improve the quality of and access to rural public health care. Despite these efforts, recent evidence shows that the rural poor continue to primarily consult private non-degree allopathic practitioners (NDAPs) for acute illness episodes. To examine this phenomenon, we explore the rural poor's perception and utilization of the rural health care system and the role and accessibility of NDAPs therein.
Methods: Our study is based on qualitative data from focus group discussions conducted in three rural districts in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two high-focus states of the NRHM in northern India, in 2009/2010. Our study population consists of female micro-credit self-help group members and their male household heads. We apply a directed content analysis and use a theoretical framework to differentiate between physical, financial and cultural access to care.
Results: Our study population distinguishes between "home treatment" (informal self-care), "local treatment" (formally unqualified care) and "outside treatment" (formally qualified care). Because of their proximity, flexible payment options and familiarity with patients' belief systems, among other things, local NDAPs are physically, financially and culturally accessible. They are usually the first contact points for patients before turning to qualified practitioners, and treat minor illnesses, provide first relief, refer patients to other providers and administer formally prescribed treatments.
Conclusion: Our findings are similar for all three study sites and reinforce recent findings from southern and eastern India. The poor's understanding and utilization of the rural health system deviates from governmental ideas. Because of their embeddedness in the community, private NDAPs are the most accessible medical providers and first contact points for acute illness episodes. Thus, they de-facto fulfill the role envisaged by the Indian government for accredited social health activists introduced as part of the NRHM. We conclude that instead of trying to replace NDAPs with public initiatives, the Indian government should regulate, qualify and integrate them as part of the existing public health care system. This way, we argue, India can improve the rural poor's access to formally qualified practitioners.