Inequities in access to medical care in five countries: findings from the 2001 Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey

Health Policy. 2004 Mar;67(3):309-22. doi: 10.1016/j.healthpol.2003.09.006.


Objective: To examine across five countries inequities in access to health care and quality of care experiences associated with income, and to determine whether these inequities persist after controlling for the effect of insurance coverage, minority and immigration status, health and other important co-factors.

Design: Multivariate analysis of a cross-sectional 2001 random survey of 1400 adults in five countries: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States.

Main outcome measures: Access difficulties and waiting times, cost-related access problems, and ratings of physicians and quality of care.

Results: The study finds wide and significant disparities in access and care experience between US adults with above and below-average incomes that persist after controlling for insurance coverage, race/ethnicity, immigration status, and other important factors. In contrast, differences in UK by income were rare. There were also few significant access differences by income in Australia; yet, compared to UK, Australians were more likely to report out of pocket costs. New Zealand and Canada results fell in the mid-range of the five nations, with income gaps most pronounced on services less well covered by national systems. In the four countries with universal coverage, adults with above-average income were more likely to have private supplemental insurance. Having private insurance in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand protects adults from cost-related access problems. In contrast, in UK having supplemental coverage makes little significant difference for access measures. Being uninsured in US has significant negative consequences for access and quality ratings.

Conclusions: For policy leaders, the five-nation survey demonstrates that some health systems are better able to minimize among low income adults financial barriers to access and quality care. However, the reliance on private coverage to supplement public coverage in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand can result in access inequities even within health systems that provide basic health coverage for all. If private insurance can circumvent queues or waiting times, low income adults may also be at higher risks for non-financial barriers since they are less likely to have supplemental coverage. Furthermore, greater inequality in care experiences by income is associated with more divided public views of the need for system reform. This finding was particularly striking in Canada where an increased incidence of disparities by income in 2001 compared to a 1998 survey was associated with diverging views in 2001.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Data Collection
  • Developed Countries
  • Health Policy*
  • Health Services Accessibility / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • National Health Programs
  • Social Justice / statistics & numerical data*