The inadequacies of the formal healthcare sector in Bangladesh has resulted in a widespread increase in informal providers as an alternative source of care providing basic and essential outpatient health services to millions of poor people in the rural areas. Close proximity to clients, availability to the community day and night, sympathetic behavior, well established relations within the community, and flexible payment methods have made the village doctors a popular source of care.
Findings from our initial studies confirmed that the village doctors (VDs) provide care of questionable quality with considerable over-prescription of drugs, including the prescription of drugs that are mostly inappropriate and potentially harmful. Regardless, the widespread existence of VDs and their significance as an integral contributor of healthcare within rural communities in Bangladesh necessitates an effective regulatory arrangement that improves and ensures a minimum standard in the quality of services provided.
FHS Phase 1
In the first phase, FHS Bangladesh established the ShasthyaSena intervention, which employed a combination of three strategies to improve healthcare services in rural Chakaria, Bangladesh. All of the 157 village doctors (VDs) practicing in the intervention areas were invited to participate in a free training in managing common illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea, hepatitis, malaria, tuberculosis, viral fever, and various complications related to labor and delivery. A small booklet with information on what to do and what not to do for eleven common illnesses was distributed as a source of future reference. As members of the SS network, qualified village doctors were awarded crests containing the SS logo. A memorandum of understanding outlining the responsibilities and objectives of SS was signed between each joining member and the network.
The study has shown that training and branding has acceptability among village doctors although their behaviour has had no drastic changes due to the lack of financial incentives. The ShasthyaSena intervention has also resulted in a change in the attitude of the government toward informal healthcare providers.
FHS Phase 2
In Phase 2, FHS Bangladesh is pursuing branding and social franchising mechanisms and marrying them to new technologies such as telemedicine and the “health box”. This will show and guide the informal healthcare providers how to treat and manage many common illnesses through the use of computer-based diagnostic algorithms. These components together will create a brand with serious content that is attractive to village doctors and even more attractive to customers through improvements in the quality of care. The intervention will further link village doctors with formal healthcare providers for more complicated illnesses. While over-the-counter drugs can be dispensed by the village doctors themselves, dispensing prescription drugs will be guided by linking them with qualified physicians. Dispensing of medicines will be part of the profit made by village doctors and will provide them with a financial incentive. All the above activities will be ensured and supervised by the project. If acceptability and efficacy of the intervention can be shown, a stronger case can be made that shows that using informal healthcare providers will be profitable in a country that has a huge shortfall in the health workforce.