Although access to health care is frequently identified as a goal for health care policy, the precise meaning of access to health care often remains unclear. We present a conceptual framework that defines access to health care as the empowerment of an individual to use health care and as a multidimensional concept based on the interaction (or degree of fit) between health care systems and individuals, households, and communities. Three dimensions of access are identified: availability, affordability, and acceptability, through which access can be evaluated directly instead of focusing on utilisation of care as a proxy for access. We present the case for the comprehensive evaluation of health care systems as well as the dimensions of access, and the factors underlying each dimension. Such systemic analyses can inform policy-makers about the 'fit' between needs for health care and receipt of care, and provide the basis for developing policies that promote improvements in the empowerment to use care.