Rural–Urban Differences: Using Finer Geographic Classifications to Reevaluate Distance and Choice of Health Services in Malawi

Kaitlyn McBride, Corrina Moucheraud

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is no universal understanding of what defines urban or rural areas nor criteria for differentiating within these. When assessing access to health services, traditional urban–rural dichotomies may mask substantial variation. We use geospatial methods to link household data from the 2015–2016 Malawi Demographic Health Survey to health facility data from the Malawi Service Provision Assessment and apply a new proposed four-category classification of geographic area (urban major metropolitan area, urban township, rural, and remote) to evaluate households’ distance to, and choice of, primary, secondary, and tertiary health care in Malawi. Applying this new four-category definition, approximately 3.8 million rural- and urban-defined individuals would be reclassified into new groups, nearly a quarter of Malawi’s 2015 population. There were substantial differences in distance to the nearest facility using this new categorization: remote households are (on average) an additional 5 km away from secondary and tertiary care services versus rural households. Health service choice differs also, particularly in urban areas, a distinction that is lost when using a simple binary classification: those living in major metropolitan households have a choice of five facilities offering comprehensive primary care services within a 10-km zone, whereas urban township households have no choice, with only one such facility within 10 km. Future research should explore how such expanded classifications can be standardized and used to strengthen public health and demographic research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2051229
JournalHealth Systems and Reform
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022


  • Access to care
  • geographic access
  • healthcare choice
  • rural–urban classification
  • rural–urban differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health Information Management


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