What factors shape surgical access in West Africa? A qualitative study exploring patient and provider experiences of managing injuries in Sierra Leone

Amrit Virk*, Mohamed Bella Jalloh, Songor Koedoyoma, Isaac O. Smalle, William Bolton, Jennifer A. Scott, Julia Brown, David Jayne, Tim Ensor, Rebecca King

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Surgical access is central to universalising health coverage, yet 5 billion people lack timely access to safe surgical services. Surgical need is particularly acute in post conflict settings like Sierra Leone. There is limited understanding of the barriers and opportunities at the service delivery and community levels. Focusing on fractures and wound care which constitute an enormous disease burden in Sierra Leone as a proxy for general surgical need, we examine provider and patient perceived factors impeding or facilitating surgical care in the post-Ebola context of a weakened health system.

Across Western Area Urban (Freetown), Bo and Tonkolili districts, 60 participants were involved in 38 semistructured interviews and 22 participants in 5 focus group discussions. Respondents included surgical providers, district-level policy-makers, traditional healers and patients. Data were thematically analysed, combining deductive and inductive techniques to generate codes.

Interacting demand-side and supply-side issues affected user access to surgical services. On the demand side, high cost of care at medical facilities combined with the affordability and convenient mode of payment to the traditional health practitioners hindered access to the medical facilities. On the supply side, capacity shortages and staff motivation were challenges at facilities. Problems were compounded by patients’ delaying care mainly spurred by sociocultural beliefs in traditional practice and economic factors, thereby impeding early intervention for patients with surgical need. In the absence of formal support services, the onus of first aid and frontline trauma care is borne by lay citizens.

Within a resource-constrained context, supply-side strengthening need accompanying by demand-side measures involving community and traditional actors. On the supply side, non-specialists could be effectively utilised in surgical delivery. Existing human resource capacity can be enhanced through better incentives for non-physicians. Traditional provider networks can be deployed for community outreach. Developing a lay responder system for first-aid and front-line support could be a useful mechanism for prompt clinical intervention.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2021


  • health services administration & management
  • orthopaedic & trauma surgery
  • qualitative research
  • surgery


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