Access to health care for people with disabilities in rural Malawi: what are the barriers?

01 Jun 2020


People with disabilities experience significant health inequalities. In Malawi, where most individuals live in low-income rural settings, many of these inequalities are exacerbated by restricted access to health care services. This qualitative study explores the barriers to health care access experienced by individuals with a mobility or sensory impairment, or both, living in rural villages in Dowa district, central Malawi. In addition, the impact of a chronic lung condition, alongside a mobility or sensory impairment, on health care accessibility is explored.


Using data from survey responses obtained through the Research for Equity And Community Health (REACH) Trust's randomised control trial in Malawi, 12 adult participants, with scores of either 3 or 4 in the Washington Group Short Set (WGSS) questions, were recruited. The WGSS questions concern a person's ability in core functional domains (including seeing, hearing and moving), and a score of 3 indicates 'a lot of difficulty' whilst 4 means 'cannot do at all'. People with cognitive impairments were not included in this study. All who were selected for the study participated in an individual in-depth interview and full recordings of these were then transcribed and translated.


Through thematic analysis of the transcripts, three main barriers to timely and adequate health care were identified: 1) Cost of transport, drugs and services, 2) Insufficient health care resources, and 3) Dependence on others. Attitudinal factors were explored and, whilst unfavourable health seeking behaviour was found to act as an access barrier for some participants, community and health care workers' attitudes towards disability were not reported to influence health care accessibility in this study.


This study finds that health care access for people with disabilities in rural Malawi is hindered by closely interconnected financial, practical and social barriers. There is a clear requirement for policy makers to consider the challenges identified here, and in similar studies, and to address them through improved social security systems and health system infrastructure, including outreach services, in a drive for equitable health care access and provision.

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Resource information

Type of resource
Peer-reviewed article
Harrison JAK, Thomson R, Banda HT, Mbera GB, Gregorius S, Stenberg B, Marshall T