The use of mortality data in the form of standardised mortality ratios (SMRs) to measure the need for health care resources in the Resource Allocation Working Party (RAWP) formula in England has been criticised for underestimating the wider effects of adverse socioeconomic conditions on need, particularly in inner city areas. To assess this criticism, we explored the relationships at NHS Regional and District levels in England between two indicators of illness from the 1981 Census, two contrasting indices of deprivation based on the 1981 Census (the Jarman 8 Underprivileged Area (UPA) score and Townsend's Index of Material Deprivation) and their constituent variables, and all cause SMRs for 1982-3. All cause SMRs were highly correlated at Regional and District level with permanent and temporary sickness rates. At Regional level, three of the Thames Regions showed relatively high deprivation scores in relation to their SMRs, in comparison to the remaining Regions where the relative level of deprivation closely matched the Region's mortality ranking. District level analyses of the relations between SMRs and the deprivation indices and their constituent variables showed that the Thames/non-Thames dichotomy was accounted for by the 14 Districts in inner London. These findings suggest that although there may be a prima facie case for including an allowance for deprivation in RAWP, it is still not clear how the deprivation variables available in the Census relate empirically to the need for additional health service resources. The analysis raises questions about the appropriate definition of need in this context and whether the Census is a suitable source for the construction of a deprivation weighting for use in national RAWP.
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