Strengthening the Free Healthcare Initiative Through a Pharmacy and Supply Chain Intervention: Partners In Health’s Experience in Rural Sierra Leone (The Lancet)

The Lancet
April 17, 2017




To improve high maternal and under-5 mortality—among the worst globally—Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MOHS) enacted the Free Healthcare Initiative in 2010. Under this initiative, pregnant and lactating women and children aged younger than 5 years receive medical treatment and essential medicines free of charge at public facilities. However, the availability of medicines remains inconsistent, which results in patients paying for medicines and an undermining of the quality of care and trust in the health-care system. These gaps between services and medicines promised under the Free Healthcare Initiative and actual resources delivered worsened during the 2013–15 Ebola epidemic, which strained an already weak health-care system. Here, we describe an approach to strengthen pharmacy and supply chain systems to improve access to essential medicines at a district hospital in Sierra Leone.


In 2015, Partners In Health undertook a gap analysis to understand the barriers to drug availability for patients eligible for the Free Healthcare Initiative at Koidu Government Hospital (KGH). A multidisciplinary task force identified priorities and created a partnership with the MOHS. Partners In Health’s Director of Pharmacy led meetings with hospital management, shadowed clinical staff, and performed an inventory of drugs and medical supplies.


The gap analysis revealed challenges in the areas of human resources, infrastructure, storage, and information systems. The results led to the following interventions: decentralisation of medication distribution from hospital to ward level; the hiring of four pharmacy technicians; expansion of central warehousing; and implementation of electronic reporting tools to improve consumption data. MOHS pharmacy staff were mentored to improve feedback mechanisms between central and district levels. Between November, 2015, and August, 2016, these changes resulted in nearly 100% availability of essential drugs—with 80% provided via the strengthened MOHS system—and elimination of out-of-pocket expenses for patients. Additionally, trust in the public health-care system has improved: compared with a 2012 and 2013 pre-Ebola baseline at KGH, paediatric and maternity admissions have increased by 47%, with a 95% increase in hospital-based deliveries.


The success of the Free Healthcare Initiative is rooted in its shared ownership with the MOHS and the integration of central-level and district-level information systems. The approach described here could be used to guide new interventions to strengthen pharmacy supply chains elsewhere in Sierra Leone and other low-resource settings.


Partners In Health, Sierra Leone.

Declaration of interests

We declare no competing interests.