Background: Informal payments in public health facilities act as a barrier to accessing quality healthcare services especially for the poor people. There is growing evidence that in most low-income countries, most poor people are unable to access quality health care services due to demands for payments for services that should be accessed for free. This research was aimed at investigating informal payments for health care services at Kamuzu Central Hospital, one of the referral public hospitals in Malawi. Results of this study provide evidence on the magnitude and factors influencing informal payments in Malawi so that relevant policies and strategies may be made to address this problem.
Methods: The study employed a mixed methods research design. The quantitative study component had a sample size of 295 patients and guardians at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH). The qualitative study included 7 in-depth interviews with key informants (health workers) and 3 focus group discussions with guardians. Each FGD had 10 people. Thus, in total the whole qualitative sample constituted 52 participants. Quantitative data was analyzed using Excel and STATA. Qualitative data was analyzed using thematic content analysis approach.
Results: 80% of patients and guardians at KCH had knowledge of informal payments. About 47% of the respondents admitted paying informally to access health care services at KCH and 87% of the informal payments were made at the request of a health worker. The study identifies lack of knowledge, fear and desperation by patients and guardians, low salary for health workers and lack of effective disciplinary measures as some of the key factors influencing informal payments in the public health sector in Malawi.
Conclusion: Informal payments exacerbate inequality in the access of health care services that should be provided for free. Specifically, poor people have limited access to quality health care services when informal payments are demanded. This practice is unethical and it infringes on people’s rights to universal access to health care. There is need to strengthen the public health care system in Malawi by formulating deliberate policies that will deter informal payments.