Adverse or acceptable: negotiating access to a post-apartheid health care contract
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BACKGROUND: As in many fragile and post-conflict countries, South Africa's social contract has formally changed from authoritarianism to democracy, yet access to services, including health care, remains inequitable and contested. We examine access barriers to quality health services and draw on social contract theory to explore ways in which a post-apartheid health care contract is narrated, practiced and negotiated by patients and providers. We consider implications for conceptualizing and promoting more inclusive, equitable health services in a post-conflict setting. METHODS: Using in-depth interviews with 45 patients and 67 providers, and field observations from twelve health facilities in one rural and two urban sub-districts, we explore access narratives of those seeking and delivering - negotiating - maternal health, tuberculosis and antiretroviral services in South Africa. RESULTS: Although South Africa's right to access to health care is constitutionally guaranteed, in practice, a post-apartheid health care contract is not automatically or unconditionally inclusive. Access barriers, including poverty, an under-resourced, hierarchical health system, the nature of illness and treatment, and negative attitudes and actions, create conditions for insecure or adverse incorporation into this contract, or even exclusion (sometimes temporary) from health care services. Such barriers are exacerbated by differences in the expectations that patients and providers have of each other and the contract, leading to differing, potentially conflicting, identities of inclusion and exclusion: defaulting versus suffering patients, uncaring versus overstretched providers. Conversely, caring, respectful communication, individual acts of kindness, and institutional flexibility and leadership may mitigate key access barriers and limit threats to the contract, fostering more positive forms of inclusion and facilitating easier access to health care. CONCLUSIONS: Building health in fragile and post-conflict societies requires the negotiation of a new social contract. Surfacing and engaging with differences in patient and provider expectations of this contract may contribute to more acceptable, accessible health care services. Additionally, the health system is well positioned to highlight and connect the political economy, institutions and social relationships that create and sustain identities of exclusion and inclusion - (re)politicise suffering - and co-ordinate and lead intersectoral action for overcoming affordability and availability barriers to inclusive and equitable health care services.