BACKGROUND: 98% of people with surgical conditions living in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) do not receive safe, timely and affordable surgical and anesthesia care. Research exploring barriers to receiving care has tended to be narrow in focus, often facility-based and ignoring the community beliefs, experiences and behaviours that will be an essential component of closing the gap in surgical care. Using qualitative methods, we captured diverse community perspectives in rural Ethiopia: exploring beliefs, perceptions, knowledge and experiences related to surgical conditions, with the overall aim of (re)constructing explanatory models.

METHODS: Our study was nested within a community-based survey of surgical conditions conducted in the Butajira Health and Demographic Surveillance Site, southern Ethiopia, and a follow-up study of people accessing surgical care in two local hospitals. We carried out 24 semi-structured interviews. Participants were community members who needed but did/did not access surgical care, community-based healthcare workers and traditional bone-setters. Interviews were conducted in Amharic, audio-recorded, transcribed, and translated into English. We initially carried out thematic analysis and we recognized that emerging themes were aligned with Kleinman's explanatory models framework and decided to use this to guide the final stages of analysis.

RESULTS: We found that community members primarily understood surgical conditions according to severity. We identified two categories: conditions you could live with and those which required urgent care, with the latter indicating a clear and direct path to surgical care whilst the former was associated with a longer, more complex and experimental pattern of help-seeking. Fear of surgery and poverty disrupted help-seeking, whilst community narratives based on individual experiences fed into the body of knowledge people used to inform decisions about care.

CONCLUSIONS: We found explanatory models to be flexible, responsive to new evidence about what might work best in the context of limited community resources. Our findings have important implications for future research and policy, suggesting that community-level barriers have the potential to be responsive to carefully designed interventions which take account of local knowledge and beliefs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number214
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Feb 2024


  • Humans
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Qualitative Research
  • Ethiopia/epidemiology
  • Emergencies
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Rural Population

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