Can universal access to health care eliminate health inequities between children of poor and nonpoor families?: A case study of childhood asthma in Alberta

Chest. 2003 Jul;124(1):51-6. doi: 10.1378/chest.124.1.51.


Study objective: Children from poor families are much more likely to have emergency visits for asthma than those from nonpoor families, which may be related to financial access barriers to good preventive care for the poor. We sought to determine whether in a health-care system that provides free access to outpatient and hospital services, the disparities in the rates of emergency visits for asthma would be less apparent across the income gradient.

Design: Longitudinal, population-based study.

Setting: Alberta, Canada.

Participants: All children born in Alberta, Canada between 1985 and 1988 (n = 90,845) were classified into three mutually exclusive groups based on the reported annual income of their parents from the previous year: very poor, poor, and nonpoor groups.

Measurements and results: We compared the relative risk (RR) of emergency visits for childhood asthma among children of very poor, poor, and nonpoor families using a Cox proportional hazard model during a 10-year follow-up. We found that the very poor children were 23% more likely to have had an emergency visit for asthma than those from nonpoor families (RR, 1.23; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.14 to 1.33), adjusted for a variety of factors. The poor group, however, had a similar risk of asthma emergency visits as the nonpoor group (RR, 0.97; 95% CI, 0.91 to 1.04). The average number of office visits for asthma was similar between the very poor and nonpoor groups.

Conclusions: In a setting of universal access to health care, children of poor and nonpoor families had similar rates of asthma emergency visits; the very poor children, however, continued to experience an excess risk. These findings suggest that a universal health-care system can reduce, but not fully eliminate, the disparities in emergency utilization of asthma across income categories.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alberta / epidemiology
  • Asthma / economics
  • Asthma / epidemiology*
  • Asthma / prevention & control
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Emergency Medical Services / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Humans
  • Income*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Maternal Age
  • Poverty
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Risk Assessment
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Universal Health Insurance*