Introduction Single solutions continue to be inadequate in confronting the prevalent problems of poverty, ill health and insufficient health system capacity worldwide. The poor need access to an integrated set of financial and health services to have income security and better health.

Over 3500 microfinance institutions (MFIs) provide microcredit and financial services to more than 155 million households worldwide. Conservative estimates indicate that at least 34 million of these households are very poor by the definition in the Millennium Development Goals, representing around 170 million people, many in remote areas beyond the reach of health agencies, both private and governmental. A small but increasing number of MFIs offer health-related services, such as education, clinical care, community health workers, health-financing and linkages to public and private health providers.

Review of evidence Multiple studies indicate the effectiveness of microfinance and its impact on poverty. A small but growing number of studies also attempt to show that MFIs are capable of contributing to health improvement by increasing knowledge that leads to behavioural changes, and by enhancing access to health services through addressing financial, geographic and other barriers. While these studies are of uneven quality, they indicate positive health benefits in diverse areas such as maternal and child health, malaria and other infectious disease, and domestic violence. While more rigorous research is needed to inform policy and guide programme implementation to integrate microfinance and health interventions that can reliably enhance the well-being of the poor, there is useful evidence to support the design and delivery of integrated programmes now.

Conclusion Worldwide, current public health programmes and health systems are proving to be inadequate to meet population needs. The microfinance sector offers an underutilized opportunity for delivery of health-related services to many hard-to-reach populations.