Access to care: time to reconsider the concept?

Imagine the uncertainty and level of decision-making required to visit a healthcare facility for a cholesterol test, blood pressure check or the renewal of a script versus requiring care and transport at the scene of an accident where there’s multiple injured patients, some requiring urgent care.

The pressure to make decisions, the emotional intensity involved (fear, anxiety, anger, remorse) and the perceptions about the possible barriers to obtain emergency care seem more complex than those required when visiting a primary healthcare clinic. Injury, accidents, sudden illness and complications from non-communicable disease all fall under the umbrella of emergency care.  Because emergency care is a frequent entry point into the healthcare system, one would assume that the barriers to access emergency care have been well-described and explored.

I reviewed more than 50 of the most cited papers that describe access to care and only three mention emergency care. Another interesting observation is that most authors do not clarify what they mean when using the term ‘access to care’. Most articles do however refer to either the behaviour model of access to care or the 5A model.

Models in brief:

The behavioural model of access to care (Aday and Andersen, 1974) highlights the relationship between utilisation and access.  It suggests utilisation as a proxy to measure access.  The flaw of using utilisation as a proxy is that patients that died prior to reaching care are not captured in the measurement.  In emergency care those that could not access care and the reasons why they couldn’t or chose not to access care are incredibly important.

In the 5A model (Pechansky and Thomas, 1981) access to care is described as a best-fit between the characteristics of the health service, the provider and the patient.  (5A’s=Availability, accessibility, affordability, acceptability, accommodation).

In recent years, the approaches became more ‘holistic’ considering variables including culture, society and gender. Access to care has clearly become more than arriving at a healthcare facility.  But again, the ability to seek care during an emergency, at the site of injury/ out-of-hospital or during transit is not mentioned.

Most countries in Africa do not yet have emergency care systems or the infrastructure to support the development of emergency care. Functional and accessible emergency care systems would enable these countries to address the burden of disease, reduce the impact of road traffic accidents and under-5 mortality to name just a few.

In these countries, when a household member requires emergency care the household needs to make harsh decisions and weigh the risk of financial ruin against a family member’s life.  This can cause irrational decision-making or a delay to make the decision. How can this not be a consideration when describing access to care?

Why including emergency care in access to care discussions matter?

The terms emergency care and out-of-hospital care are relatively new and not included in discussions on access to care, especially not those building on the older, generic descriptions.  It makes it hard for policymakers and funders to actually understand what emergency care is, how it enables access to the rest of the healthcare system and why it matters.

If key stakeholders do not understand the terminology used, they are unlikely to prioritize it, promote it or fund it. Measurement and evaluation are important to stakeholders.  Emergency care does not lend itself to quick, affordable projects with measurable outcomes.  For instance to a politician or funder arriving in a village and vaccinating 500 children is measurable and can be promoted.  To develop emergency care takes time and is harder to define and measure and thus less likely to be funded. If we can clarify the concepts around access to emergency care better, we might be able to create measurable outcomes and thus obtain funding and prioritization.

Not including emergency care as a core aspect when defining access to care in general complicates the development and advocacy of emergency care.  Maybe it’s time to design a model similar to the 3D model used for maternal mortality to define the determinants of access to emergency care.

I would love to hear your thoughts:  how would you describe access to care and if you agree that emergency care deserve more mention (or am I just biased?).

Please note that due to space I’m not including all the article. I can send a spreadsheet if anyone would like to see it.  Some of the authors include Donabedian, Aday and Andersen, Frenk, Pechansky and Thomas, McCintyre et al., Ensor and Cooper, Dutton, Gulliford, Goddard and Smith, Hadid and Mohindra, Mooney, Culyer, van Doorslaer and Wagstaff, Peters, O’Donnel and others.

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