BACKGROUND: Concerns about the occurrence of disease among household members generally initiate treatment-seeking actions. This study aims to identify the various treatment-seeking options of patients in Lubumbashi, analyze their health-seeking behaviour, identify determinants for the use of formal care, and analyze direct health care expenditure.
METHODS: A cross-sectional survey of households in Lubumbashi was conducted in July 2010. Information was collected from a randomly selected sample of 251 households with at least one member who had been ill in the 2 weeks preceding the survey.
RESULTS: Frequently used initial treatment-seeking options consist of self-medication based on modern medicines (54.6%), the use of first-line health services (23.1%) and hospitals (11.9%), with a perceived effectiveness of 51%, 83% and 91% respectively. If people go for a second option, then formal health care services are most often preferred. The majority (60%) of patients' spontaneous itineraries reflect the expected functioning of a local health care system, with a patient flow characterised by the use of a first line health facility prior to the use of hospital-based services. Chronicity of the disease is the main determinant of seeking formal care. Analysis of care expenditure reveals that drugs are the only line of expenditure in the informal system and the main source of expenditure in the formal system; costs do not discriminate between first-line health services and hospitals, and the payment system is regressive since the poorest patients pay the same amounts as the richest.
CONCLUSIONS: This study points to the importance of self-medication as the first therapeutic option for the majority of patients in Lubumbashi, whatever the nature of the health problem. There is a lot of room to rationalise this practice. Although formal care is not common initial therapeutic option, it is the source of care most patients turn to, especially when they believe having a chronic disease. Patients' itineraries in this urban environment are complex; health managers should try and deal with this reality. Finally, our study indicates that poor patients face the same level of out-of-pocket payments as the more wealthy ones, hence the need for more equitable health care financing arrangements.