Socioeconomic disparities in health care use: Does universal coverage reduce inequalities in health?
- Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada
- Correspondence to: Dr P J Veugelers, Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University, 5849 University Avenue, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 4H7;
- Accepted 8 September 2002
Background: Despite enormous public sector expenditures, the effectiveness of universal coverage for health care in reducing socioeconomic disparities in health has received little attention.
Study objectives: To evaluate whether universal coverage for health care reduces socioeconomic disparities in health.
Design: Information on participants of the 1990 Nova Scotia Nutrition Survey was linked with eight years of administrative health services data and mortality. The authors first examined whether lower socioeconomic groups use more health services, as would be expected given their poorer health status. They then investigated to what extent differential use of health services modifies socioeconomic disparities in mortality. Finally, the authors evaluated health services use in the last years of life when health is poor regardless of a person’s socioeconomic background.
Setting: The Canadian province of Nova Scotia, which provides universal health care coverage to all residents.
Participants: 1816 non-institutionalised adults, aged 18–75 years, from a two stage cluster sample stratified by age, gender, and region.
Main results: People with lower socioeconomic background used comparatively more family physician and hospital services, in such a way as to ameliorate the socioeconomic differences in mortality. In contrast, specialist services were comparatively underused by people in lower socioeconomic groups. In the last three years of life, use of specialist services was significantly higher in the highest income group.
Conclusions: Universal coverage of family physician and hospital services ameliorate the socioeconomic differences in mortality. However, specialist services are underused in lower socioeconomic groups, bearing the potential to widen the socioeconomic gap in health.
Funding: support for this study is provided through funding by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Career Award to Dr Veugelers.
Conflicts of interest: none.