Understanding barriers to emergency care in low-income countries: view from the front line

Adam C Levine, David Z Presser, Stephanie Rosborough, Tedros A Ghebreyesus, Mark A Davis
Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 2007, 22 (5): 467-70

INTRODUCTION: Morbidity and mortality due to acute but treatable conditions remain high in the developing world, as many significant barriers exist to providing emergency medical care. This study investigates these barriers in a rural region of Ethiopia.

HYPOTHESIS: The limited capacity of frontline healthcare workers to diagnose and treat acute medical and surgical conditions represents a major barrier to the provision of emergency care in rural Ethiopia.

METHODS: Health providers at a convenience sample of 16 rural health centers in the state of Tigray, Ethiopia completed a questionnaire designed to assess the availability of diagnostic and treatment modalities, the proximity and methods of transportation to referral facilities, and health providers' level of comfort in diagnosing and treating a variety of representative emergency medical conditions.

RESULTS: Thirteen (81%) providers had only a very basic level of medical training, and seven (44%) lacked access to any diagnostic equipment. While most providers could offer oral rehydration solution (ORS), anti-pyretic medications, and antibiotics, none of the providers could offer blood transfusions or any form of surgery. Ten (63%) respondents stated that their patients had to travel >10 km from the health center to a referral hospital, with only a minority of patients having access to motorized transport. For the seven emergency conditions assessed, a majority of providers felt comfortable diagnosing these conditions, though fewer felt comfortable treating them.

CONCLUSION: There is a significant need for both health worker training and improvements in transportation infrastructure in order to increase access to emergency medical care in rural areas of the developing world. Low-cost interventions that improve human capacity in a context-appropriate manner are warranted as transportation and hospital network capacity expansions are considered.

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