We examined the views of providers and users of the surgical system in Freetown, Sierra Leone on processes of care, job and service satisfaction and barriers to achieving quality and accessible care, focusing particularly on the main public tertiary hospital in Freetown and two secondary and six primary sites from which patients are referred to it. We conducted interviews with health care providers ( N = 66), service users ( n = 24) and people with a surgical condition who had chosen not to use the public surgical system ( N = 13), plus two focus groups with health providers in primary care ( N = 10 and N = 10). The overall purpose of the study was to understand perceptions on processes of and barriers to care from a variety of perspectives, to recommend interventions to improve access and quality of care as part of a larger study. Our research suggests that providers perceive their relationships with patients to be positive, while the majority of patients see the opposite: that many health workers are unapproachable and uncaring, particularly towards poorer patients who are unable or unwilling to pay staff extra in the form of informal payments for their care. Many health care providers note the importance of lack of recognition shown to them by their superiors and the health system in general. We suggest that this lack of recognition underlies poor morale, leading to poor care. Any intervention to improve the system should therefore consider staff–patient relations as a key element in its design and implementation, and ideally be led and supported by frontline healthcare workers.