Objective: To investigate socio-economic differences in the use of health services in Belgium and to explore to what extent eventual socio-economic inequalities are explained by differences in demographic determinants and health needs.
Design: Data was obtained from the 1997 Belgian national Health Interview Survey. In this survey information was collected on the health status, the life style and the medical consumption of a representative sample of the Belgian non-institutionalised population consisting of 8560 Belgian inhabitants aged 15 years and over.
Results: Lower socio-economic groups make more often use of the general practitioner and nursing care at home and are more often admitted to hospital than persons with a high socio-economical status. There is, however, no socio-economic gradient when the health status is taken into account. On the opposite, persons with a higher socio-economic status report more often a visit to a specialist, a physiotherapist or a dentist. For the health services for which this was investigated no association was found between socio-economic status and the volume of the use of health services.
Conclusions: There are in Belgium still important socio-economic gradients in the use of some health services. These differences may be due to socio-economic inequities but could also indicate that the existing health facilities are not always used in an optimal way. Patient factors may be more important than supply factors in explaining the differential use of health services. Further research needs to focus on socio-economic differences in the reasons, the outcome and the quality of the provided care.