Living through conflict and post-conflict: experiences of health workers in northern Uganda and lessons for people-centred health systems

Health Policy Plan. 2014 Sep;29 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):ii6-14. doi: 10.1093/heapol/czu022.


Providing people-centred health systems--or any systems at all--requires specific measures to protect and retain healthcare workers during and after the conflict. This is particularly important when health staff are themselves the target of violence and abduction, as is often the case. This article presents the perspective of health workers who lived through conflict in four districts of northern Uganda--Pader, Gulu, Amuru, and Kitgum. These contained more than 90% of the people displaced by the decades of conflict, which ended in 2006. The article is based on 26 in-depth interviews, using a life history approach. This participatory tool encouraged participants to record key events and decisions in their lives, and to explore areas such as their decision to become a health worker, their employment history, and their experiences of conflict and coping strategies. These were analyzed thematically to develop an understanding of how to protect and retain staff in these challenging contexts. During the conflict, many health workers lost their lives or witnessed the death of their friends and colleagues. They also experienced abduction, ambush and injury. Other challenges included disconnection from social and professional support systems, displacement, limited supplies and equipment, increased workload and long working days and lack of pay. Health workers were not passive in the face of these challenges, however. They adopted a range of safety measures, such as mingling with community members, sleeping in the bush, and frequent change of sleeping place, in addition to psychological and practical coping strategies. Understanding their motivation and their views provides an important insight how to maintain staffing and so to continue to offer essential health care during difficult times and in marginalized areas.

Keywords: Health workers; conflict; motivation; participatory research; post-conflict; retention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Armed Conflicts / psychology*
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation
  • Patient-Centered Care*
  • Social Support
  • Uganda
  • Workload / psychology