Health service utilization in the former Soviet Union: Evidence from eight countries

Dina Balabanova, Martin McKee, Joceline Pomerleau, Richard Rose, Christian Haerpfer

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

156 Citations (Scopus)


Background. In the past decade, the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union have experienced major changes in the inherited Soviet model of health care, which was centrally planned and provided universal, free access to basic care. The underlying principle of universality remains, but coexists with new funding and delivery systems and growing out-of-pocket payments. Objective. To examine patterns and determinants of health care utilization, the extent of payment for health care, and the settings in which care is obtained in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine. Methods. Data were derived from cross-sectional surveys, representative of adults aged 18 and over in each country, conducted in 2001. Multistage random sample of 18,428 individuals, stratified by region and area, was obtained. Instrument contained extensive data on demographic, economic, and social characteristics, administered face-to-face. The analysis explored the health seeking behavior of users and nonusers (those reporting an episode of illness but not consulting). Results. In the preceding year, over half of all respondents visited a medical professional, ranging from 65.7 percent in Belarus to 24.4 percent in Georgia, mostly at local primary care facilities. Of those reporting an illness, 20.7 percent of all did not consult although they felt they should have done so, varying from 9.4 percent in Belarus to 42.4 percent in Armenia and 49 percent in Georgia. The main reason for not seeking care was lack of money to pay for treatment (45.2 percent), self-treatment with home-produced remedies (32.9 percent), and purchase of nonprescribed medicine (21.8 percent). There are marked differences between countries; unaffordability was a particularly common factor in Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova (78 percent, 70 percent, 54 percent), and much lower in Belarus and Russia. In Georgia and Armenia, 65 percent and 56 percent of those who had consulted paid out-of-pocket, in the form of money, gifts, or both; these figures were 8 percent and 19 percent in Belarus and Russia respectively and 31.2 percent overall. The probability of not consulting a health professional when seriously ill was significantly higher among those over age 65, and with lower education. Use of health care was markedly lower among those with fewer household assets or a shortage of money, and those dissatisfied with their material resources, factors that explained some of the effects of age. A lack of social support (formal and informal) decreases further the probability of not consulting, adding to the consequences of poor financial status. The probability of seeking care for common conditions varies widely among countries (persistent fever: 56 percent in Belarus; 16 percent in Armenia) and home remedies, alcohol, and direct purchase of pharmaceuticals are commonly used. Informal coping strategies, such as use of connections (36.7 percent) or offering money to health professionals (28.5 percent) are seen as acceptable. Conclusions. This article provides the first comparative assessment of inequalities in access to health care in multiple countries of the former Soviet Union, using rigorous methodology. The emerging model across the region is extremely diverse. Some countries (Belarus, Russia) have managed to maintain access for most people, while in others the situation is near collapse (Armenia, Georgia). Access is most problematic in health systems characterized by high levels of payment for care and a breakdown of gate-keeping, although these are seen in countries facing major problems such as economic collapse and, in some, a legacy of civil war. There are substantial inequalities within each country and even where access remains adequate there are concerns about its sustainability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1927-1950
Number of pages24
JournalHealth Services Research
Issue number6 II
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Access
  • Inequalities
  • Out-of-pocket payments
  • Soviet Union
  • Utilization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy


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