Listening to the community: Using formative research to strengthen maternity waiting homes in Zambia

PLoS One. 2018 Mar 15;13(3):e0194535. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0194535. eCollection 2018.


Background: The WHO recommends maternity waiting homes (MWH) as one intervention to improve maternal and newborn health. However, persistent structural, cultural and financial barriers in their design and implementation have resulted in mixed success in both their uptake and utilization. Guidance is needed on how to design a MWH intervention that is acceptable and sustainable. Using formative research and guided by a sustainability framework for health programs, we systematically collected data from key stakeholders and potential users in order to design a MWH intervention in Zambia that could overcome multi-dimensional barriers to accessing facility delivery, be acceptable to the community and be financially and operationally sustainable.

Methods and findings: We used a concurrent triangulation study design and mixed methods. We used free listing to gather input from a total of 167 randomly sampled women who were pregnant or had a child under the age of two (n = 59), men with a child under the age of two (n = 53), and community elders (n = 55) living in the catchment areas of four rural health facilities in Zambia. We conducted 17 focus group discussions (n = 135) among a purposive sample of pregnant women (n = 33), mothers-in-law (n = 32), traditional birth attendants or community maternal health promoters (n = 38), and men with a child under two (n = 32). We administered 38 semi-structured interviews with key informants who were identified by free list respondents as having a stake in the condition and use of MWHs. Lastly, we projected fixed and variable recurrent costs for operating a MWH. Respondents most frequently mentioned distance, roads, transport, and the quality of MWHs and health facilities as the major problems facing pregnant women in their communities. They also cited inadequate advanced planning for delivery and the lack of access to delivery supplies and baby clothes as other problems. Respondents identified the main problems of MWHs specifically as over-crowding, poor infrastructure, lack of amenities, safety concerns, and cultural issues. To support operational sustainability, community members were willing to participate on oversight committees and contribute labor. The annual fixed recurrent cost per 10-bed MWH was estimated as USD543, though providing food and charcoal added another $3,000USD. Respondents identified water pumps, an agriculture shop, a shop for baby clothes and general goods, and grinding mills as needs in their communities that could potentially be linked with an MWH for financial sustainability.

Conclusions: Findings informed the development of an intervention model for renovating existing MWH or constructing new MWH that meets community standards of safety, comfort and services offered and is aligned with government policies related to facility construction, ownership, and access to health services. The basic strategies of the new MWH model include improving community acceptability, strengthening governance and accountability, and building upon existing efforts to foster financial and operational sustainability. The proposed model addresses the problems cited by our respondents and challenges to MWHs identified by in previous studies and elicits opportunities for social enterprises that could serve the dual purpose of meeting a community need and generating revenue for the MWH.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Community Participation
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Services Accessibility / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Maternal Health Services / economics
  • Maternal Health Services / organization & administration*
  • Middle Aged
  • Midwifery / organization & administration
  • Models, Organizational
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnant Women*
  • Prenatal Care / economics
  • Prenatal Care / methods
  • Prenatal Care / organization & administration
  • Program Evaluation
  • Residential Facilities / economics
  • Residential Facilities / organization & administration*
  • Rural Health Services / economics
  • Rural Health Services / organization & administration*
  • Rural Population
  • Young Adult
  • Zambia

Grants and funding

This program was funded by and is being implemented in collaboration with Merck for Mothers, Merck’s 10-year, $500 million initiative to help create a world where no woman dies giving life. Merck for Mothers is known as MSD for Mothers outside the United States and Canada. Grant GHH I-00- 07-0023-00,, The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.