Journal of Public Health
VoI. 27, No. 1, pp. 49–54
Advance Access Publication 8 December 2004
© The Author 2005, Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Faculty of Public Health. All rights reserved.
Health seeking behaviour and health service
utilization in Pakistan: challenging the policy
Babar T. Shaikh and Juanita Hatcher
There is a growing literature on health seeking behaviours
and the determinants of health services utilization especially
in the context of developing countries. However, very few
focused studies have been seen in Pakistan in this regard.
This paper presents an extensive literature review of the situ-
ation in developing countries and relates the similar factors
responsible for shaping up of a health seeking behaviour
and health service utilization in Pakistan. The factors deter-
mining the health behaviours may be seen in various contexts:
physical, socio-economic, cultural and political. Therefore,
the utilization of a health care system, public or private, for-
mal or non-formal, may depend on socio-demographic fac-
tors, social structures, level of education, cultural beliefs and
practices, gender discrimination, status of women, eco-
nomic and political systems environmental conditions, and
the disease pattern and health care system itself. Policy
makers need to understand the drivers of health seeking
behaviour of the population in an increasingly pluralistic
health care system. Also a more concerted effort is required
for designing behavioural health promotion campaigns
through inter-sectoral collaboration focusing more on disad-
vantaged segments of the population.
Keywords: health, health care system, health seeking
behaviour, health service utilization, Pakistan
Strategic policy formation in all health care systems should be
based on information relating to health promoting, seeking and
utilization behaviour and the factors determining these behav-
iours. All such behaviours occur within some institutional struc-
ture such as family, community or the health care services. The
factors determining the health behaviours may be seen in vari-
ous contexts: physical, socio-economic, cultural and political.1
Therefore, the utilization of a health care system, public or pri-
vate, formal or non-formal, may depend on socio-demographic
factors, social structures, level of education, cultural beliefs and
practices, gender discrimination, status of women, economic
and political systems environmental conditions, and the disease
pattern and health care system itself.2–6
A main driver for the health seeking behaviour is the organi-
zation of the health care system. In many health care systems,
there is tension between the public and the private health sector.
The private health sector tends to serve the affluent; thus the
public sector resources should be freed for the poor. A dynamic
cooperation, either formal or informal, between the two sectors
is a must but the private sector is rarely taken into account in
health planning scenarios.7,8 The public and private sector may
complement or substitute for each other. There are very often
resource mixes with doctors working in the public sector also
establishing their own private practice. Features of the service
outlet and confidence in the service provider also play a major
role in decision making about the choice of health facility.9–11
This paper reviews the relationship of factors affecting
health seeking behaviour on use of health services in the devel-
oping world including Pakistan, encompassing public as well
private sector. The health care system in Pakistan is described,
and the literature reviewed from regional as well as interna-
tional journals, using key words (health, health care system,
health seeking behaviour, health service utilization, Pakistan)
and using the structure of conceptual framework of Kroeger for
assessing health-seeking behaviour.1 Conclusions are drawn
relating to the situation in Pakistan.
Health care delivery system in Pakistan
The government of Pakistan spends 3.1 per cent of its GDP on
economic, social and community services and 43 per cent is spent
on debt servicing.12 About 0.8 per cent is spent on health care,
which is even lower than Bangladesh (1.2 per cent) and Sri Lanka
(1.4 per cent).13 However, the health status of the population
has improved over the past three decades,14 the rate of immuni-
zation of children has more than doubled, and the knowledge
of family planning has increased remarkably and is almost uni-
versal. For over half the population (66 per cent) living in the
Department of Community Health Sciences (CHS), Aga Khan University
Babar T. Shaikh, Senior Instructor, Faculty Health Systems Division
Juanita Hatcher, Associate Professor, Head CHS Research Development Unit)
Address correspondence to Babar T. Shaikh.
by guest on May 14, 2011
50JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH
rural part of the country,15 poverty coupled with illiteracy, the
low status of women and inadequate water and sanitation facil-
ities have had a deep impact on health indicators.16 Beside lim-
ited knowledge of illness and wellness, cultural prescriptions,17
perceptions of a health service and provider and social barriers,
cost has been a major barrier to the provision of an effective
health service.18 This has affected the physical and financial
accessibility of the health services.
The health care system in Pakistan comprises the public as
well as private health facilities. In the public sector, under the
Devolution Plan of the Government of Pakistan in 2000,19 the
districts have been given comprehensive administrative as well
as financial autonomy in almost all sectors, including health.
The districts are now responsible for developing their own
strategies, programmes and interventions based on their locally
generated data and needs identified. Following the principles of
Alma Alta, the public health care system is primary care
focused. At the community level, the Lady Health Worker
(LHW) programme of the Ministry of Health, and the Village
Based Family Planning Worker (VBFPW) programme of
Ministry of Population Welfare of Government of Pakistan
have been established. These programmes gained an interna-
tional reputation due to their grass root coverage plans.20 These
workers are supported by an elaborate network of dispensaries
and basic health units (BHU) (serving 10 000–20 000 popula-
tion) and rural health centres (RHC) (serving 25 000–50 000
population). The next levels of referral are the taluka/tehsil hos-
pital (serving 0.5–1 million population), and the tertiary level
hospital (serving 1–2 million people). The nationwide network
of medical services consists of 796 hospitals, 482 RHCs, 4616
BHUs and 4144 dispensaries.21 However, these basic level facil-
ities have restricted hours of operation, are often located distant
from the population. Manpower is constituted of approximately
90 000 doctors, 3000 dentists, 28 000 nurses, 6000 Lady Health
Visitors and 24 000 midwives. Only 25 per cent of the BHUs
and RHCs have qualified female health providers.22
In private sector, there are some accredited outlets and hospi-
tals, but also many unregulated hospitals, medical general practi-
tioners, homeopaths, hakeems, traditional/spiritual healers,
Unani (Greco-arab) healers, herbalists, bonesetters and quacks.23
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also active in the
health and social sector. In urban parts of the country, some pub-
lic–private partnership initiatives exist through franchising of pri-
vate health outlets. These have been successful to a large extent in
raising the level of awareness of positive health behaviour among
the people. For instance, the increasing contraceptive prevalence
rate is due to the efforts of NGO sector and the LHWs of the
government.24,25 Nevertheless, primary health care activities have
not brought about expected improvements in health practices,
especially of rural population groups. In some areas of rural
Pakistan, more than 90 per cent of deliveries are performed by
untrained or semi-trained dais or Traditional Birth Attendants
(TBAs).26,27 Among other diverse and multi-faceted reasons, a
poorly functioning referral system may be partly to blame.28
Given the complex nature of the health care delivery system
in Pakistan and the limited resources available to the health
care sector, it is essential for the various sectors to plan and
work together to improve the health of Pakistanis. Thus it is
important to understand the health seeking behaviour of the
population and the factors driving this behaviour.
Factors affecting health seeking behaviour
A variety of factors have been identified as the leading causes of
poor utilization of primary health care services: including poor
socio-economic status, lack of physical accessibility, cultural
beliefs and perceptions, low literacy level of the mothers and large
family size. Review of the global literature suggests that these fac-
tors can be classified as cultural beliefs, socio-demographic status,
women’s autonomy, economic conditions, physical and financial
accessibility, and disease pattern and health service issues.2–6
Each group of factors is considered separately in the follow-
ing section and later discussed in the scenario of Pakistan.
Cultural and socio-demographic factors
Cultural beliefs and practices often lead to self-care, home reme-
dies and consultation with traditional healers in rural communi-
ties.29 Advice of the elder women in the house is also very
instrumental and cannot be ignored.30 These factors result in
delay in treatment seeking and are more common amongst
women, not only for their own health but especially for children’s
illnesses.31–34 Family size and parity, educational status and occu-
pation of the head of the family are also associated with health
seeking behaviour besides age, gender and marital status.29,35–37
However, cultural practices and beliefs have been prevalent
regardless of age, socio-economic status of the family and level of
education.38–40 They also affect awareness and recognition of
severity of illness, gender, availability of service and acceptability
of service.41 Gender disparity has affected the health of the
women in Pakistan too by putting an un-rewarded reproductive
burden on them, resulting in early and excessive child-bearing.
This has led to ‘a normal maternity’ being lumped with diseases
and health problems. Throughout the life cycle, gender discrimi-
nation in child rearing, nutrition, health care seeking, education
and general care make a woman highly vulnerable and disadvan-
taged.17,18,42 At times, religious misinterpretations have endorsed
her inferior status. For her, limited access to the outer world has
been culturally entrenched in the society, and for the unmarried,
the situation has been even worse,4,6 even if it is a matter of con-
sulting a physician in emergency.39,43
Men play a paramount role in determining the health needs of a
woman. Since men are decision makers and in control of all the
resources, they decide when and where woman should seek
health care.44 Women suffering from an illness report less fre-
quently for health care seeking as compared to men.45 The low
by guest on May 14, 2011
HEALTH SEEKING BEHAVIOUR AND HEALTH SERVICE UTILIZATION IN PAKISTAN 51
status of women prevents them from recognizing and voicing
their concerns about health needs. Women are usually not
allowed to visit a health facility or health care provider alone or
to make the decision to spend money on health care. Thus
women generally cannot access health care in emergency situa-
tions.3–5 This certainly has severe repercussions on health in
particular and self-respect in general of the women and their
children. Despite the fact that women are often the primary
care givers in the family, they have been deprived of the basic
health information and holistic health services.44 In Pakistan,
having a subjugated position in the family, women and children
need to seek the permission of head of the household or the
men in the family to go to health services.4,43,46 Women are
socially dependent on men and lack of economic control rein-
forces her dependency.17 The community and the family as
institutions have always undermined her prestige and recogni-
tion in the household care. The prevailing system of values pre-
serves the segregation of sexes and confinement of the women
to her home.6,47 Education of women can bring respect, social
liberty and decision making authority in household chores.
The economic polarization within the society and lack of social
security system make the poor more vulnerable in terms of
affordability and choice of health provider.29,48 Poverty not
only excludes people from the benefits of health care system but
also restricts them from participating in decisions that affect
their health, resulting in greater health inequalities. Possession
of household items, cattle, agricultural land and type of resi-
dence signify not only the socio-economic status but also give a
picture of livelihood of a family.38 In most of the developing
countries of south Asia region, it has been observed that magni-
tude of household out of pocket expenditure on health is at
times as high as 80 per cent of the total amount spent on health
care per annum.49 Economic ability to utilize health services has
not been very different in Pakistan. For health expenditure in
Pakistan, 76 per cent goes out of pocket.50 This factor also
determines the ability of a person or a family as a whole to
satisfy their need(s) for health care. Cost has undoubtedly
been a major barrier in seeking appropriate health care in
Pakistan.4,6,27 Not only the consultation fee or the expenditure
incurred on medicines count but also the fare spent to reach the
facility and hence the total amount spent for treatment turns
out to be cumbersome. Consequently, household economics
limit the choice and opportunity of health seeking.16,17
Access to a primary health care facility is projected as a basic
social right.51 Dissatisfaction with primary care services in
either sector leads many people to health care shop52 or to jump
to higher level hospitals for primary care,53 leading to consider-
able inefficiency and loss of control over efficacy and quality of
services.54,55 In developing countries including Pakistan, the
effect of distance on service use becomes stronger when combined
with the dearth of transportation and with poor roads, which
contributes towards increase costs of visits.22,56,57 Availability
of the transport, physical distance of the facility and time taken
to reach the facility undoubtedly influence the health seeking
behaviour and health services utilization.4,6,18,27,58 The distance
separating patients and clients from the nearest health facility
has been remarked as an important barrier to use, particularly
in rural areas.59 The long distance has even been a disincentive
to seek care especially in case of women who would need some-
body to accompany. As a result, the factor of distance gets
strongly adhered to other factors such as availability of transport,
total cost of one round trip and women’s restricted mobility.
Health services and disease pattern
The under-utilization of the health services in public sector has
been almost a universal phenomenon in developing countries.
On the other hand, the private sector has flourished everywhere
because it focuses mainly on ‘public health goods’ such as ante-
natal care, immunization, family planning services, treatment
for tuberculosis, malaria and sexually transmitted infections.60–
62 Still higher is the pattern of use of private sector allopathic
health facilities. This high use is attributed mostly to issues of
acceptability such as easy access, shorter waiting time, longer or
flexible opening hours, better availability of staff and drugs,
better attitude and more confidentiality in socially stigmatized
diseases.63,64 However, in private hospitals and outlets, the
quality of services, the responsiveness and discipline of the pro-
vider has been questionable.65,66 Client-perceived quality of
services and confidence in the health provider affect the health
service utilization.67 Also whether medicine is provided by the
health care facility or has to be bought from the bazaar has an
effect.68 In Pakistan, the public health sector by and large has
been underused due to insufficient focus on prevention and
promotion of health, excessive centralization of management,
political interference, lack of openness, weak human resource
development, lack of integration, and lack of healthy public
policy.69,70 The low use of MCH centres, dispensaries and
BHUs in Pakistan is discouraging. It may be due to lack of
health education, non-availability of drugs and low literacy rate
in rural areas.59 The communication factor also creates a bar-
rier due to differences of language or cultural gaps and it can
also affect the choice of a specific health provider or other-
wise.71 The type of symptoms experienced for the illness and the
number of days of illness are major determinants of health seek-
ing behaviour and choice of care provider. In case of a mild sin-
gle symptom such as fever, home remedies or folk prescriptions
are used, whereas with multiple symptoms and longer period of
illness, biomedical health provider is more likely to be con-
sulted.10,26 Traditional beliefs tend to be intertwined with pecu-
liarities of the illness itself and a variety of circumstantial and
social factors. This complexity is reflected in the health seeking
behaviour, including the use of home-prescriptions, delay in
seeking bio-medical treatment and non-compliance with treat-
ment and with referral advice. The attitude of the health provider
by guest on May 14, 2011
52JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH
and patient satisfaction with the treatment play a role in health
To develop rational policy to provide efficient, effective, accept-
able, cost-effective, affordable and accessible services, we need
to understand the drivers of health seeking behaviour of the popu-
lation in an increasingly pluralistic health care system. This
relates both to public as well as private sectors.
Raising the socio-economic status through multi-sectoral
development activities such as women’s micro-credit, life-skill
training and non-formal education have been shown to have a
positive impact on health seeking behaviour, morbidity and
mortality besides the overall empowerment of women popula-
tion.72,73 Gender sensitive strategies and programmes need to be
developed. Health providers also need to be sensitized more
towards the needs of the clients especially the women to
improve interpersonal communication.72 Although there is a
fairly large infrastructure of formal and orthodox institutions
for health provision, the quality needs to be improved. Moreo-
ver, it is strongly desirable to further nurture critical, creative
and reflective thinking to reorient our health system. Health
care providers need to be more compassionate and caring to the
needs of the people they serve. They should possess integrity,
creativity and sensitivity and be the role model within health
care system and in communities.
People marked with debt, dependence and disease are those
who deserve more universal support to achieve quality of life,
health and well being in order to be able to compare themselves
with the rest of the world. Introducing a ‘self care system’ in the
community which includes early detection of danger signs in
diarrhoea, malaria, pneumonia and issues like family planning
and personal hygiene could form a package of health education
for any community setting.74,75 This should address the prob-
lem of self-medication to some extent. Patient education
regarding drug use and its hazards has also been advocated
since long ago.76 Public health awareness programs should be
organized for mothers as components of public health efforts
intended to help mothers understand the disease process and
difference between favourable and unfavourable health prac-
tices. This would enhance the mothers’ understanding of dis-
ease process and importance of preventive measures for a better
With this complex and pervasive picture of health system
utilization and health seeking behaviour in Pakistan, it is highly
desirable to reduce the polarization in health system use by
introducing more client centred approach, employing more
female health workers, supportive and improved working and
living conditions of health personnel, and a convivial ambiance
at health service outlets.47 Extra financial incentives offered to
public sector staff not only will help in retaining them but will
also motivate them to deliver quality services.70 State regulatory
mechanisms and continuing education and training for the
providers seem imperative.71,77 A comprehensive health care
system has to focus on the 66 per cent of rural people who are
the poorest of the poor and who become visible only when pro-
grammes are signed with international donors. A more coordi-
nated effort in designing behavioural health promotion
campaigns through inter-sectoral collaboration78 focusing more
on disadvantaged segments of the population (i.e. women, chil-
dren and elderly would be step towards improvement). If a
health service is to work, it must start from what users need.
This paper has described the general situation vis-à-vis
health seeking behaviour and health service utilization in devel-
oping countries, presenting a special accent on Pakistan. With
the advent of decentralization in Pakistan,19 policy is formu-
lated at the district level. Therefore, policy makers must under-
stand health behaviours and health care use at the district level,
and give enough credence to these facts so that policies could be
designed appropriately. In-depth research is imperative to visu-
alize the real picture of the habits and practices of the people of
our region. More challenging would be translating the research
into policy and action. Such research will definitely have an
impact on the direction or implementation of currently
launched health reforms in Pakistan. It will rationally inform
the decision makers in government and private sector about the
re-structuring of the administration and re-designing the inter-
ventions. Such research could also be instrumental in identify-
ing the possible avenues of partnership and collaboration to
strengthen the entire health system.
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