[Inequalities in health in Italy]

Epidemiol Prev. 2004 May-Jun;28(3 Suppl):i-ix, 1-161.
[Article in Italian]


Socioeconomic inequality and its impact on health is a growing concern in the European public health debate. In many countries, the issue is moving away from description towards the identification of the determinants of inequalities and the development of policies explicitly aimed at reducing inequalities in health. In Italy, ten years after the publication of the first report on inequalities in health, this topic is seldom present on the agenda of public policy makers. The purpose of this report is to update the Italian profile of social variation in health and health care in order to stimulate the debate on ways to tackle inequalities in health that are preventable. In the first section of this book, the threefold objective is to describe the principal mechanisms involved in the generation of social inequalities in health (Introduction); to report Italian data on the distribution and magnitude of this phenomenon in the last decade; and to evaluate policies and interventions in both the social (chapter 1.9, Section I) and the health sector (chapter 2.3, Section I), which are potentially useful to reduce health inequalities. It is intended for anyone who is in a position to contribute t o decision-making that will benefit the health of communities. For this reason, chapters are organized by specific determinants of inequalities on which interentions may have an impact. The methodological approach in the second section focuses on the best methods to monitor social inequalities including recommendations on social indicators, sources of information and study models, based on European guidelines revised for the Italian situation. According to data from national and local studies, mortality increases linearly with social disadvantage for a wide range of indicators at both the individual (education, social class, income, quality of housing) and the geographical level (deprivation indexes computed at different levels of aggregation). This positive correlation is evident for both sexes, with the steepest gradient observed among adults of working age, although differences persist also among the elderly. The causes of death found to be most highly correlated with social inequality, and largely responsible for the increasing inequality over the last decade, are those associated with addiction and exclusion (drug, alcohol and violence related deaths), with smoking (lung cancer) and with safety in the workplace and on the roads (accidents). Similar gradients and trends have been observed with different outcomes, such as self-reported morbidity, disability and cancer incidence (chapter 1.1, Section I). Reproductive outcomes confiirm this picture: compared to women belonging to the upper classes, those women in low conditions experience more spontaneous abortions and their children suffer from higher infant mortality and low birth weight. This is a critical issue since poor infant health, particularly for metabolic and respiratory pathologies, affects health in adult life. There is now substantive evidence showing that also socioeconomic circumstances at birth or during adolescence may have a strong impact on adult health (chapter 1.2, Section I). Differences in harmful lifestyles, such as smoking, heavy drinking, drug use, unhealthy diet, obesity and physical inactivity, have a similar effect. The only exception is smoking among women, which is positively correlated with socioeconomic status; however, since women in the upper classes have a greater tendency to quit smoking, the gradient will soon be reversed (chapter 1.7, Section I). On the other hand, most of these behaviours do not follow from free and conscious individual choice; they are a form of adaptation to chronic stress originating in the work-place (chapter 1.4, Section I), or to particularly unfavourable events and conditions, such as unemployment (chapter 1.5, Section I) or lack of family and social support (chapter 1.6, Section I). Poor socioeconomic circumstances are the threshold of absolute poverty and may lead to social exclusion, a condition with a heavy impact on health, which in Italy includes marginal groups of the native population and broader classes of immigrants (chapter 1.3, Section I). Finally, there is recent and consistent evidence on the existence of a "contextual" effect on health, as opposed to the "compositional" effect given solely by the aggregation of individual processes. According to this hypothesis, characteristics of the infrastructure, and the physical and socioeconomic environment of an area would have an impact on individual health independent from the cultural and economic resources personally available to people living in that area (chapter 1.8, Section I). With respect to the health care system, various studies are in agreement in demonstrating that poor and less educated people have inadequate access both to primary prevention and early diagnosis (chapter 2.1, Section I), and to early and appropriate care (chapter 2.2, Section I). They also experience higher rates of hospitalization, particularly in emergencies and with advanced levels of severity.

Publication types

  • English Abstract

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Delivery of Health Care / standards
  • Emigration and Immigration
  • Female
  • Health Policy
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Italy
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Statistical
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Class*
  • Social Justice / statistics & numerical data
  • Social Support
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Unemployment / statistics & numerical data
  • Work