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Soc Sci Med. 2009 Mar;68(6):1153-60. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.12.049.

Bureaucratic Itineraries in Colombia. A theoretical and methodological tool to assess managed-care health care systems.

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Department of Anthropology, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Cra 30, No. 45-03, Bogota, Colombia.


Steady increases in the number of Colombians insured by the health care system contrasts with the hundreds of thousands of legal actions interposed to warrant citizen's right to health. This study aims to analyze the relationships among patients' experiences of denials by the system, the country's legal mechanisms, and the functioning of insurance companies and service providing institutions. We conducted a mixed-methods case study in Bogotá and present a quantitative description of 458 cases, along with semi-structured interviews and an in-depth illness history. We found that Colombians' denials of care most commonly include appointments, laboratory tests or treatments. Either insurance companies or service providing institutions use the system's legal structure to justify the different kinds of denials. To warrant their right to health care, citizens are forced to interpose legal mechanisms, which are largely ruled in favor, but delays result in a progressive and cumulative pattern of harmful consequences, as follows: prolongation of suffering, medical complications of health status, permanent harmful consequences, permanent disability, and death. We diagram the path that Colombians need to follow to have their health care claims attended by the system in a matrix called Bureaucratic Itineraries. Bureaucratic Itineraries is a theoretical and methodological construct that links the personal experience of illness with the system's structure and could be an important tool for understanding, evaluating and comparing different systems' performances. In this case, it allowed us to conclude that managed care in Colombia has created complex bureaucracies that delay and limit care through cost-containment mechanisms, which has resulted in harmful consequences for people's lives.

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