Interventions to reduce corruption in the health sector

What is the aim of this review?

The aim of this Cochrane review is to assess the effectiveness of strategies to reduce corruption in the health sector. Cochrane researchers searched for all potentially relevant studies, and found nine studies that met their criteria.

Key messages

The review suggests that some strategies to fight corruption in the health sector can have an effect on corruption. These strategies include the use of independent agencies to investigate and punish corruption, telling healthcare workers that they are not allowed to accept payments from pharmaceutical companies, ensuring that information about healthcare prices is clear and accessible to the public together with increasing healthcare worker salaries. However, the certainty of this evidence varies. We need more high-quality studies that assess the effects of these and other strategies.

What was studied in the review?

Corruption can occur in any area of the health sector, and happens when people abuse their own position to benefit themselves, their organisation, or other people close to them. It can take many forms, including bribes, theft, or giving incorrect or inaccurate information deliberately.

Healthcare officials, for instance, may steal healthcare funds, hospital administrators may change patient records to increase hospital payments, doctors may accept bribes from pharmaceutical companies in exchange for using their products, and patients may try to bribe hospital staff to avoid treatment queues.

Corruption affects the health sector in many ways. It can take money away from healthcare, lead to poorer quality care and make access to healthcare unfair, and often affects poor people the hardest.

What are the main results of the review?

The review authors included nine relevant studies that used different strategies to stop corruption.

• In a study from the USA, efforts to investigate and punish corruption in the health sector were also increased. An independent agency at the national level coordinated these efforts, which led to convictions and the recovery of large amounts of money (high certainty evidence). These efforts may also have led to substantial savings to the government (low certainty evidence). In another study from the USA establishment of an independent agency to investigate and enforce efforts against overbilling was established, but the effects of these efforts are unclear because the evidence was of very low certainty. In India, there were efforts to stop corruption through the appointment of an ombudsman in one state. However, the effect of this strategy is unclear because the evidence was of very low certainty.

• In one study in South Korea and two in the USA, efforts to investigate and punish corruption in clinics and hospitals were increased, without establishing an independent agency. However, it is unclear whether these were effective because the evidence is of very low certainty.

• In a study in Kyrgyzstan, the government carried out a number of strategies, including giving patients and the public information about how much they should be paying, and increasing healthcare workers’ salaries. This study shows that these strategies may have led to fewer patients giving their doctors informal payments (low certainty evidence).

• In a study in Germany, hospital doctors were given guidelines telling them that they were not allowed to accept money or gifts from pharmaceutical companies. The study suggests that this may have changed doctors’ attitudes about the influence of pharmaceutical companies on their choice of medicines (low certainty evidence).

• In one study in the USA, the authorities introduced a law that required pharmaceutical companies to report the gifts they gave to healthcare workers. In another USA-based study, community health centres attempted to stop corruption using a variety of internal control mechanisms. However, the effect of these strategies is unclear because the evidence was of very low certainty.

We don't know what the effects of these strategies have on healthcare or people’s health, or if these strategies had any harmful effects. This is because the studies only assessed the effects of the strategies on corruption and the use of resources, or because the evidence was of very low certainty.

How up to date is this review?

The review authors searched for studies that had been published up to 06 June 2016.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is a paucity of evidence regarding how best to reduce corruption. Promising interventions include improvements in the detection and punishment of corruption, especially efforts that are coordinated by an independent agency. Other promising interventions include guidelines that prohibit doctors from accepting benefits from the pharmaceutical industry, internal control practices in community health centres, and increased transparency and accountability for co-payments combined with reduced incentives for informal payments. The extent to which increased transparency alone reduces corruption is uncertain. There is a need to monitor and evaluate the impacts of all interventions to reduce corruption, including their potential adverse effects.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Corruption is the abuse or complicity in abuse, of public or private position, power or authority to benefit oneself, a group, an organisation or others close to oneself; where the benefits may be financial, material or non-material. It is wide-spread in the health sector and represents a major problem.

Objectives: 

Our primary objective was to systematically summarise empirical evidence of the effects of strategies to reduce corruption in the health sector. Our secondary objective was to describe the range of strategies that have been tried and to guide future evaluations of promising strategies for which there is insufficient evidence.

Search strategy: 

We searched 14 electronic databases up to January 2014, including: CENTRAL; MEDLINE; EMBASE; sociological, economic, political and other health databases; Human Resources Abstracts up to November 2010; Euroethics up to August 2015; and PubMed alerts from January 2014 to June 2016. We searched another 23 websites and online databases for grey literature up to August 2015, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Transparency International, healthcare anti-fraud association websites and trial registries. We conducted citation searches in Science Citation Index and Google Scholar, and searched PubMed for related articles up to August 2015. We contacted corruption researchers in December 2015, and screened reference lists of articles up to May 2016.

Selection criteria: 

For the primary analysis, we included randomised trials, non-randomised trials, interrupted time series studies and controlled before-after studies that evaluated the effects of an intervention to reduce corruption in the health sector. For the secondary analysis, we included case studies that clearly described an intervention to reduce corruption in the health sector, addressed either our primary or secondary objective, and stated the methods that the study authors used to collect and analyse data.

Data collection and analysis: 

One review author extracted data from the included studies and a second review author checked the extracted data against the reports of the included studies. We undertook a structured synthesis of the findings. We constructed a results table and 'Summaries of findings' tables. We used the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) approach to assess the certainty of the evidence.

Main results: 

No studies met the inclusion criteria of the primary analysis. We included nine studies that met the inclusion criteria for the secondary analysis.

One study found that a package of interventions coordinated by the US Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Justice recovered a large amount of money and resulted in hundreds of new cases and convictions each year (high certainty of the evidence). Another study from the USA found that establishment of an independent agency to investigate and enforce efforts against overbilling might lead to a small reduction in overbilling, but the certainty of this evidence was very low. A third study from India suggested that the impacts of coordinated efforts to reduce corruption through increased detection and enforcement are dependent on continued political support and that they can be limited by a dysfunctional judicial system (very low certainty of the evidence).

One study in South Korea and two in the USA evaluated increased efforts to investigate and punish corruption in clinics and hospitals without establishing an independent agency to coordinate these efforts. It is unclear whether these were effective because the evidence is of very low certainty.

One study from Kyrgyzstan suggested that increased transparency and accountability for co-payments together with reduction of incentives for demanding informal payments may reduce informal payments (low certainty of the evidence).

One study from Germany suggested that guidelines that prohibit hospital doctors from accepting any form of benefits from the pharmaceutical industry may improve doctors’ attitudes about the influence of pharmaceutical companies on their choice of medicines (low certainty of the evidence).

A study in the USA, evaluated the effects of introducing a law that required pharmaceutical companies to report the gifts they gave to healthcare workers. Another study in the USA evaluated the effects of a variety of internal control mechanisms used by community health centres to stop corruption. The effects of these strategies is unclear because the evidence was of very low certainty.

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