Urban hospital outpatient clinics in developing countries are said to be overburdened and some policy experts are proposing a new intermediate tier of advanced health centres between hospitals and health centres to solve this roblem termed \"reference centres\" by the World Health Organization). In Maseru, Lesotho, hospital congestion led the Ministry of Health to decide to build reference centres. To delineate precisely how these centres should operate, research was carried out on the existing system comparing utilization, quality and cost between health centre and hospital outpatient care. The study showed that throughout per clinician at the hospital and the city health centres was similar; that the hospital service saw a greater proportion of adults and more men; that the technical care quality was similar; and, that health centre staff took longer with patients and had higher interpersonal consultation scores. Average costs at the hospital were 39 per cent greater, but, the calculated net costs to the provider at the hospital and at government centres were very similar once user fees had been taken into account. The results questioned the assumptions underlying the decision to build reference centres in Maseru, and also the relevance of a new tier to solve health service delivery problems in the city. The study highlights the need for national and municipal planners to examine carefully existing health services with respect to utilization, quality and cost before adopting urban reference centres as a standard solution to congested hospitals.
International Journal of Health Planning Management (1995) 10 (1) 59-71 [doi: 10.1002/hpm.4740100106]