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Strategies for reducing out of pocket payments in the health system: a scoping review



Direct out-of-pocket payments (OOP) are among the most important financing mechanisms in many health systems, especially in developing countries, adversely affecting equality and leading vulnerable groups to poverty. Therefore, this scoping review study was conducted to identify the strategies involving OOP reduction in health systems.


Articles published in English on strategies related to out-of-pocket payments were Searched and retrieved in the Web of Science, Scopus, PubMed, and Embase databases between January 2000 and November 2020, following PRISMA guidelines. As a result, 3710 papers were retrieved initially, and 40 were selected for full-text assessment.


Out of 40 papers included, 22 (55%) and 18 (45%) of the study were conducted in developing and developed countries, respectively. The strategies were divided into four categories based on health system functions: health system stewardship, creating resources, health financing mechanisms, and delivering health services.As well, developing and developed countries applied different types of strategies to reduce OOP.


The present review identified some strategies that affect the OOP payments According to the health system functions framework. Considering the importance of stewardship, creating resources, the health financing mechanisms, and delivering health services in reducing OOP, this study could help policymakers make better decisions for reducing OOP expenditures.


Nowadays, spending on health is rising, accounting for 10% of global gross domestic product (GDP). Government expenditures, out-of-pocket payments (OOPs), and sources like voluntary health insurance, employer-provided health programs, and activities by non-governmental organizations are all included in health spending [1].

As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), OOP expenses are the individuals’ direct payments to healthcare providers at the time of service use [2]. OOPs, include purely private transactions (payments made by individuals to private doctors and pharmacies), official patient cost-sharing (user fees/copayments) within defined public or private benefit packages, and informal payments (payments beyond the prescriptions entitled as benefits, both in cash and in-kind). Therefore, OOPs may be explicitly some part of a policy or can occur through market transactions, or both [3].

OOP health expenditures may increase whenever households opt to access and receive health services but are not protected against high payments since medical costs are high. They do not have access to insurance coverage and other safeguards against OOPs [4]. The following factors significantly affect OOP health care costs: increased patient cost-sharing, development of high-deductible health care plans, and more use of costly biologic or designer drugs. OOP payments are not an efficient way of financing health care and may negatively affect equity and cause vulnerable groups to experience poverty [5]. High OOP medical costs can use up financial savings and damage credits and have a negative impact on the quality of life, medication adherence, and different health outcomes [6].

A new report by the World Bank Group stated that OOP payments accounted for a non-negligible part of total health care expenditures in Central and Eastern European countries. Also, Patients in developing countries spent half a trillion dollars each year (over $80 per person) out of their own pockets to receive health services [7]. Unfortunately, such expenses significantly harmed the poor [8]. The more the health sector grew, the less reliant it would be on OOP spending. The total OOP spending increased at least twice as much in low- and middle-income countries during 2000–2017 and reached 46% in high-income ones. However, its growth was slower than that of public spending in all income groups [9]. According to Adam Wagstaf (2020), OOP expenditures changed significantly within income groups, ranging from $32 in Sweden to $1200 in Switzerland in the high-income groups, and from six dollars in Madagascar to $100 in Cambodia, Haiti, and Nepal in the low-income ones [10].

There have been health financing policy reforms and measures in several countries recently to deal with the concerns over high OOP payments. While there is no remedy, available information suggests that having well-designed policies and strategies can help countries reduce OOP and its adverse effects successfully [2, 11]. In general, reforms can apply some key strategies to abolish user fees or charges in public health facilities and exempt specific community groups such as the poor and the vulnerable, and pregnant women and children from official payments. They should also exempt some health services such as maternal and child care from official payments and deliver them free of charge [12].

Due to the lack of resources, implementing effective policies can protect households against the common and high costs of the health system. To date, no known study has reviewed the proposed appreciate strategies for reducing OOP health payments worldwide. So, the present study aims to investigate strategies of reducing OOP payments in the health system through scoping review studies between 2000 and 2020. This review can help decision-makers learn from the effective experiences of other countries in reducing OOP health payments.

Materials and methods

This study was carried out based on the Joanna Briggs Institute scoping review method as a framework [13], and a comprehensive systematic scoping review was performed to explain the strategies that could effectively reduce OOP health expenditures around the world. A defined question based on the PCC (Population, Concept, and Context) elements was raised at the first stage. All the countries in the world (Population), strategies and policies that affected OOP health expenditures (Concept), and all health systems having OOP payments (Context) were included in the question.

The second stage dealt with the target population, which comprised all the studies related to “Out-of-Pocket Expenditures” in various countries. To this end, all related studies conducted since 2000 were retrieved through the research strategy (Table 1).

Table 1 The search strategy of the research

Thus, the original English keywords appropriate to the research objective were first selected based on the comments of the research team and the keywords used in available related studies. Then, PubMed, Scopus, ISI Web of Science, and Embase databases were searched. It was decided to identify all the articles with at least an English abstract indexed in one database.

The selection of the relevant studies was carried out in the third stage. First, 3710 articles were indexed in all databases. After deleting duplicates, 1474 English-language articles were selected for review. Then, 223 articles were excluded from the list after reviewing the titles and abstracts, and 108 were chosen to review the full-text, and finally, the research team chooses 40 papers (Fig. 1). It is worth mentioning that all of the research processes and selection of the papers were conducted by two researchers independently (FSJ and PB), and a third researcher was responsible for reaching consensus if necessary (SD). Also, the protocols and review studies were not included in the present research. Finally, the Critical Appraisal Skills Program (CASP) tool was used to evaluate the quality of the original articles since it worked as a guide to cover the essential areas for critical appraisal of articles effectively.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) flow diagram for thescoping review process

In the last stage, the data were extracted from each study using the data-charting form (Appendix Table 4) and were collated and classified according to the thematic analysis provided.

In stage four, the data-charting form was used to extract data from each study (Appendix Table 4). Then, the collected data were collated and classified according to the thematic analysis in the last stage.


The findings resulted from the analysis of 40 studies were summarized in Appendix Table 5. Among these studies, 20 (50%), 13 (32.5%), four (10%), and three (7.5%) studies belonged to Asian, American, European, and African countries, respectively. Furthermore, 22 (55%) and 18 (45%) belonged to developing and developed countries.

Other findings show that four main factors have been emphasized as the effective factors on reducing OOP payments in the health systems, including Health system stewardship, creating resources, the health financing mechanisms, and delivering health services (Table 2).

Table 2 Component affecting on out of pocket reducing

As it derives from Table 2, 31 (77.5%) articles pointed to the “role of the healthcare system stewardship” as one of the main components in reducing OOP payments. The three subcomponents under the tutelage include legislation (40.5%), legislation implementation (42.5%), and effective monitoring (17%).

The second most referred main component belonged to the "health financing mechanisms " with 18 articles (45%) and three subcomponents, namely revenue collection (19%), pooling and Resource management (57%), payment and purchasing (24%).

The number of article on “delivering health services” were 15 (37.5%). It has two sub-components of preventive services (50%), and treatment (50%) have been considered as one of the main components affecting the reduction of OOP payments in health systems.

“Creating Resource” with ten articles (25%) and two sub-components, namely the physical resources (50%), human capital investment, and training (50%), also have the least referred in the articles.

As Table 3 shows, developed and developing countries have implemented various strategies to reduce OOP. Developed Asian countries have applied medical subsidy, universal health coverage, Choosing the right pharmacy, requesting inexpensive generic drugs by patients, the inclusion of dental care coverage in health insurance packages, control strategies drug price, performance-based payment, eliminating OOP costs for methods of contraception, choose a brand-name drug with a generic equivalent, free screening, drug coupons, promoting the quality of primary care services, ordering by physicians and telehealth as effective strategies in reducing OOP payments. Government support of public health insurance program, subsidy program for diseases with high economic burden, prevent and control chronic diseases, training the physicians, developing clinical guidelines, universal health coverage, diagnosis-related group (DRG) based payment system, expanding the dental health reform, providing care closer to home, Insurance for children, students, the elderly, the disabled, and other unemployed populations in urban regions groups not covered by basic health insurance catastrophic disease insurance, increase the efficiency and quality of care, free treatment to the vulnerable segment of the population, clear the system from informal payment, -innovative financing mechanisms on the collection, pooling and purchasing side, free gynecologic screening and discharging patients earlier are some strategies that Asian developing countries such as Iran, India, China, Bangladesh and the Philippines and African countries such as Ethiopia and Ghana have implemented to reduce their OOP payments.

Table 3 Implemented interventions in developed and developing countries


Overall, the results showed that four main components—health system stewardship, financing mechanisms, service delivery, and creating resources—have been effective in reducing OOP payments in health systems of different countries. This category is similar to the functions introduced by the WHO report in 2000 [52].

Legislation, legislation implementation, and effective monitoring are considered as proposed subcomponents of the stewardship. The results of many studies have shown that health care governance around the world can reduce household health expenditures by legislation. For example, Rahman et al. (2020), in their research in Bangladesh, stated that health care governance, strengthening the rules and regulations related to care subsidies by public health centers, counseling and planning clinics for parents, and Community-based health centers for low-income consumers and patients with high economic burden can play an important role in reducing OOP healthcare costs [31]. Sarnak et al. (2017) cited federal government negotiations and legislation on the announcement of centralized prices. They approved drug ceiling rates in the United States as one factor in reducing OOP payments [22].

Ensuring implementation and monitoring the correctness of the laws by health system governance can also help reduce OOP payments. Several studies have identified the implementation of laws and programs related to global health care coverage as a way to protect households from these expenditures [22, 23, 28, 35, 36].

Control on the efficiency and quality of care and payment systems [18], Careful monitoring to clear the informal payments [29, 37] and ensuring the supply and availability of essential medicines [38] is also helpful in this regard.

According to the present study results, by investing in human capital investment and training and physical facilities, OOP payments can also be reduced. Providing the infrastructure for online video consultation in Australia [44], improving access to health facilities in India [32], physicians' training on various fields in Iran [17] and the United States [45], had been reported as effective strategies in reducing OOP.

On the other hand, the lack of financial protection has been recognized as a health system disease. OOP payments are one of the major financing mechanisms in many developing countries and put the poor's greatest pressure. Adequate financing and its functions, including revenue collection, risk pooling and purchasing, are introduced as the most important mechanisms in reducing the share of direct OOP payment [53]. For example, Aryeetey et al. (2016), in their study in Ghana, stated that enrolment into health insurance would reduce OOP payments by 80% [37].

Several studies have also expanded the intensity and health insurance coverage for dental services [21]، rare and incurable diseases treatment [31], and mentioned the support for vulnerable groups as effective factors in this regard [42]. A study in India found that using new methods of health financing to collect, pooling and purchasing would reduce the severity of poverty and OOP payments [5], including pay for performances [14] and diagnosis-related groups (DRGs) payments [18, 33, 49].

Also in this research, the provision of prevention and treatment services have been included as two sub-components of providing health services. Some studies have shown that taking precautionary measures can prevent many OOP payments in the future. Meda et al. (2019) stated that the implementation of screening programs for gynecological diseases in reproductive age would prevent cancer in later years and thus will lead to individual financial protection [16].

The results of a study by Kastor et al. Showed that launching national prevent and control cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke programs in India significantly reduces OOP payment [31].

It is worth mentioning that the studies obtained from the present study showed that in addition to preventive services, the providers' behaviors and actions are also effective in reducing OOP payments. physicians can replace generic drugs with brand drugs in their prescriptions [20, 39, 45] Limiting diagnostic-therapeutic tests and surgeries and preventing unnecessary admissions in special intensive care wards and alternative interventions, discharge patients quickly [50] And improve the quality and effectiveness of services [15, 18], play an effective role in reducing OOP payments.

Also, as this study shows, employing cost-effectiveness research for determining price ceilings, dental care coverage in health insurance packages, control strategies drug price, and on-line video consultation are some strategies implemented in developed countries. But developing countries have implemented strategies, such as government support of public health insurance programs, subsidy programs for diseases with high economic burdens, training the physicians, eliminate informal payments, and discharging patients earlier. Strategies such as free screening programs, universal health coverage, pay for performance, promoting the quality of care services and replacing the brand drug with generic have been common in both developed and developing countries. The reason for these differences can be sought in factors such as the medical capacity of countries, per capita government funding, different patterns of disease, the governing system, and the health financing system. A study in Iran cited economic factors, policy factors, social support organizations, insurance, cost of health services, tariffs, health services organizations, providers and consumers’ behaviors, and epidemiological conditions as factors influencing OOP health payments [54].

It should be noted that this study by a research team has reviewed articles related to effective solutions to reduce OOP payments in the health systems of different countries. The search strategy consisted of four electronic databases, and two independent researchers evaluated each article.

This study faces several limitations including limitations related to databases and search strategies by researchers. As well the suggested strategies were not surveyed regarding to effectiveness or cost. Therefore, more studies are needed to check the cost and effectiveness of suggested strategies for reducing OOP.


One of the most important characteristics of successful countries in providing maximum health for their communities is the rationality of the financing method and maximizing the share of the public sector in the share of OOP payments in health services so that people feel comfortable when the disease occurs. In case of disability and poverty, do not give up health services.

The present review identified the importance of each health system's functions that affect the reduction of OOP payments. Given that OOP payments are the worst form of financing in any health system, the strategies proposed and successfully implemented worldwide must be considered by policymakers when making future decisions to target health systems. Approach their goals, which include promoting health, increasing accountability, and equitable financial participation.

Availability of data and materials

Data of this research is available and could be sent upon contact with the corresponding author.


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Authors would like to thank Shiraz University of Medical Sciences (SUMS) for financial support of the research.


The study has been funded by Shiraz University of Medical Sciences (SUMS) under the code of 23113.

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FSJ and PB did the search and screaning and data extraction. SD raised the research idea and supervises all phase of the research. All authors have equal contribution in drafting and reviewing the manuscript. All authors have read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Sajad Delavari.

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Appendix 1

Appendix 1

See Tables 4 and 5.

Table 4 A draft chart of data extraction
Table 5 Selected Studies on out of pocket reducing strategies

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Jalali, F.S., Bikineh, P. & Delavari, S. Strategies for reducing out of pocket payments in the health system: a scoping review. Cost Eff Resour Alloc 19, 47 (2021).

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