Building a middle-range theory of free public healthcare seeking in sub-Saharan Africa: a realist review

Emilie Robert, Oumar Mallé Samb, Bruno Marchal, Valéry Ridde

Research output: Contribution to journalA1: Web of Science-articlepeer-review


Realist reviews are a new form of knowledge synthesis aimed at providing middle-range theories (MRTs) that specify how interventions work, for which populations, and under what circumstances. This approach opens the 'black box' of an intervention by showing how it triggers mechanisms in specific contexts to produce outcomes. We conducted a realist review of health user fee exemption policies (UFEPs) in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This article presents how we developed both the intervention theory (IT) of UFEPs and a MRT of free public healthcare seeking in SSA, building on Sen's capability approach. Over the course of this iterative process, we explored theoretical writings on healthcare access, services use, and healthcare seeking behaviour. We also analysed empirical studies on UFEPs and healthcare access in free care contexts. According to the IT, free care at the point of delivery is a resource allowing users to make choices about their use of public healthcare services, choices previously not generally available to them. Users' ability to choose to seek free care is influenced by structural, local, and individual conversion factors. We tested this IT on 69 empirical studies selected on the basis of their scientific rigor and relevance to the theory. From that analysis, we formulated a MRT on seeking free public healthcare in SSA. It highlights three key mechanisms in users' choice to seek free public healthcare: trust, risk awareness and acceptability. Contextual elements that influence both users' ability and choice to seek free care include: availability of and control over resources at the individual level; characteristics of users' and providers' communities at the local level; and health system organization, governance and policies at the structural level.

Original languageEnglish
JournalHealth Policy and Planning
Issue number7
Pages (from-to)1002–1014
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Journal Article


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