The object of this study was to compare components of quality of care provided to female outpatients by practitioners working in the private and public sectors in Karnataka State, India. Consultations conducted by 18 private practitioners and 25 public-sector practitioners were observed for 5 days using a structured protocol. Private practitioners were selected from members of the Indian Medical Association in a predominantly rural sub-district of Kolar District. Government doctors were selected from a random sample of hospitals and health centres in three sub-districts of Mysore District. A total of 451 private-sector and 650 public-sector consultations were observed; in each sector about half involved a female practitioner. The mean length of consultation was 2.81 minutes in the public sector and 6.68 minutes in the private sector. Compared with public-sector practitioners, private practitioners were significantly more likely to undertake a physical examination and to explain their diagnosis and prognosis to the patient. Privacy was much better in the private sector. One-third of public-sector patients received an injection compared with two-thirds of private patients. The mean cost of drugs dispensed or prescribed were Rupees 37 and 74 in public and private sectors, respectively. Both in terms of thoroughness of diagnosis and doctor-patient communication, the quality of care appears to be much higher in the private than in the public sector. However, over-prescription of drugs by private practitioners may be occurring.