Signalling, status and inequities in maternal healthcare use in Punjab, Pakistan

Zubia Mumtaz, Adrienne Levay, Afshan Bhatti, Sarah Salway
Social Science & Medicine 2013, 94: 98-105
Despite rising uptake of maternal healthcare in Pakistan, inequities persist. To-date, attempts to explain and address these differentials have focused predominantly on increasing awareness, geographic and financial accessibility. However, in a context where 70% of healthcare is private sector provided, it becomes pertinent to consider the value associated with this good. This study examined patterns of maternal healthcare use across socioeconomic groups within a rural community, and the meanings and values attached to this behaviour, to provide new insight into the causes of persistent inequity. A 10-month qualitative study was conducted in rural Punjab, Pakistan in 2010/11. Data were generated using 94 in-depth interviews, 11 focus group discussions and 134 observational sessions. Twenty-one pregnant women were followed longitudinally as case studies. The village was comprised of distinct social groups organised within a caste-based hierarchy. Complex patterns of maternal healthcare use were found, linked not only to material resources but also to the apparent social status associated with particular consumption patterns. The highest social group primarily used free public sector services; their social position ensuring receipt of acceptable care. The richer members of the middle social group used a local private midwife and actively constructed this behaviour as a symbol of wealth and status. Poorer members of this group felt pressure to use the afore-mentioned midwife despite the associated financial burden. The lowest social group lacked financial resources to use private sector services and opted instead to avoid use altogether and, in cases of complications, use public services. Han, Nunes, and Dreze's (2010) model of status consumption offers insight into these unexpected usage patterns. Privatization of healthcare within highly hierarchical societies may be susceptible to status consumption, resulting in unforeseen patterns of use and persistent inequities. To-date these influences have not been widely recognised, but they deserve greater scrutiny by researchers and policy-makers given the persistence of the private sector.

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