Background Increasing recognition of the importance of medicine sellers in low-resource settings has emerged alongside assumptions that their motives and capacities primarily relate to profit maximization. This article suggests a need to reframe thinking about the role of medicine sellers in developing country health systems.
Methods We used in-depth interviews to explore perceptions of medicine seller roles among a restricted random sample of 20 medicine sellers in North-West Cameroon. Interviews and analysis explored self-perception of their work/role, community perceptions, skills and knowledge, regulation, future plans, links with the formal health system and diversity among medicine sellers.
Results Medicine sellers in our study were a varied, yet distinct group. They saw themselves as closely integrated in the social and medical landscapes of clients. Although some client interactions were described as simple sales, many respondents presented themselves as gatekeepers of medicines and knowledge, reflecting a conceptualization of the distinctness of medicines over other commodities. Acknowledgement of limits in knowledge and resources led to recognition of the need for formal healthcare providers and justified a restricted scope of practice and the need for referral. Motivation was derived from a desire for both financial and social capital combined with a proximity to medicines and repeated exposure to ill health. Legitimacy was perceived to be derived from: a historical mandate; informal and formal training and effective ‘community regulation’.
Conclusions The distinct role that medicine sellers describe themselves as occupying in this study area can be characterized as provision of ‘first aid’, urgent, reactive and sometimes providing intermediate care prior to referral. Medicine sellers suggest that they do not aspire to be doctors and emphasize the complementary, rather than competitive, nature of their relationship with formal providers. We discuss the challenges and opportunities of characterizing medicine sellers as a distinctive group of ‘first aiders’ in this setting.