The cost of imperfect agency in health care: Evidence from rural Cameroun
Health is a pressing problem facing Africans today, yet health care systems in Africa are inadequate and under-funded. We show that pervasive imperfect agency means that they are also inefficient. Imperfect agency (due to unobservable medical effort) is a recognized market failure in health care, but its impact is difficult to measure. We take an indirect approach to estimation and infer the cost of unobservable effort from the behavior of utility-maximizing patients, specifically their willingness to incur measurable costs to avoid practitioners who shirk. We use a unique data set from rural Cameroun where patients choose between the government health system, church-operated (mission) health facilities and, importantly, traditional healers. Traditional healers provide health services on an outcome-contingent basis where patients pay only if they are cured. Both government and mission facilities, in contrast, are paid on a fee-for-service basis. Patients' choices of practitioners, combined with quantitative information about patients' illnesses, permit a structural estimation of the value of unobservable medical effort. The results allow investigation into the nature of agency, its costs, and the manner in which contracts reduce and patient behavior mitigates those costs. We estimate that in the absence of imperfect agency, utility from health care would increase by at least 160%. Even in the face of imperfect agency, the sophistication of patients in choosing between existing contracts for different illnesses increases utility by up to 20%.
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