Background: Since 2000, the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which included a goal to improve maternal health by the end of 2015, has facilitated significant reductions in maternal morbidity and mortality worldwide. However, despite more focused efforts made especially by low- and middle-income countries, targets were largely unmet in sub-Saharan Africa, where women are plagued by many challenges in seeking obstetric care. The aim of this review was to synthesise literature on barriers to obstetric care at health institutions in sub-Saharan Africa.
Methods: This review was guided by the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) checklist. PubMed, Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL), and Scopus databases were electronically searched to identify studies on barriers to health facility-based obstetric care in sub-Saharan Africa, in English, and dated between 2000 and 2015. Combinations of search terms 'obstetric care', 'access', 'barriers', 'developing countries' and 'sub-Saharan Africa' were used to locate articles. Quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods studies were considered. A narrative synthesis approach was employed to synthesise the evidence and explore relationships between included studies.
Results: One hundred and sixty articles met the inclusion criteria. Currently, obstetric care access is hindered by several demand- and supply-side barriers. The principal demand-side barriers identified were limited household resources/income, non-availability of means of transportation, indirect transport costs, a lack of information on health care services/providers, issues related to stigma and women's self-esteem/assertiveness, a lack of birth preparation, cultural beliefs/practices and ignorance about required obstetric health services. On the supply-side, the most significant barriers were cost of services, physical distance between health facilities and service users' residence, long waiting times at health facilities, poor staff knowledge and skills, poor referral practices and poor staff interpersonal relationships.
Conclusion: Despite similarities in obstetric care barriers across sub-Saharan Africa, country-specific strategies are required to tackle the challenges mentioned. Governments need to develop strategies to improve healthcare systems and overall socioeconomic status of women, in order to tackle supply- and demand-side access barriers to obstetric care. It is also important that strategies adopted are supported by research evidence appropriate for local conditions. Finally, more research is needed, particularly, with regard to supply-side interventions that may improve the obstetric care experience of pregnant women.
Systematic review registration: PROSPERO 2014 CRD42014015549.
Keywords: Access; Barriers; Developing countries; Facility-based deliveries; Institutional maternal mortality; Maternal deaths; Maternity care; Obstetric care; Sub-Saharan Africa; Systematic review.