Primary health services in Ecuador: comparative costs, quality, and equity of care in Ministry of Health and rural social security facilities

R L Robertson, C E Castro, L C Gomez, G Gwynne, C L Tinajero Baca, D K Zschock
Social Science & Medicine 1991, 32 (12): 1327-36
This study of costs, quality and financial equity of primary health services in Ecuador, based on 1985 data, examines three assumptions, common in international health, concerning Ministry of Health (MOH) and Social Security (SS) programs. The assumptions are that MOH services are less costly than SS services, that they are of lower quality than SS services, and that MOH programs are more equitable in terms of the distribution of funds available for PHC among different population groups. Full costs of a range of primary health services were estimated by standard accounting techniques for 15 typical health care establishments, 8 operated by the MOH and 7 by the rural SS program (RSSP), serving rural and peri-urban populations in the two major geographical regions of Ecuador. Consistent with the conventional premise, MOH average costs were much lower than RSSP costs for several important types of services, especially those provided by physicians. Little difference was found for dental care. The lower MOH physician service costs appeared to be attributable primarily to lower personnel compensation (only partially offset by lesser productivity) and to greater economies of scope. Several measures of the quality of care were applied, with varying results. Based on staff differences and patterns of expenditures on resource inputs, notably drugs, RSSP quality appeared higher, as assumed. However, contrary to expectation, a questionnaire assessment of staff knowledge and procedures favored the MOH for quality. Program equity was judged in terms of per capita budgeted expenditures (additional measures, such as the likelihood of receiving necessary care, would have required household survey data beyond the scope of this program-based study). The results support the assumption of greater MOH financial equity, as its program reveals less variation in budgeted expenditures between different population groups covered. Additional evidence of equity, using other indicators, would be helpful in future research. The paper's findings have policy implications not only for Ecuador's health sector but also for policy-makers in other countries at similar levels of socioeconomic development. These implications are spelled out in order to guide officials wrestling with issues of efficiency, quality, and equity as they search for the best use of scarce resources to promote health.

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