Background: The inverse association between socioeconomic position (SEP) and health has been extensively explored in Italy; however few studies have been carried out on the relationship between income inequalities and health status or health services utilisation, particularly at a local level.The objective of this study is to test the association between the demand for hospital care and a small area indicator based on income in four Italian cities, over a four-year period (1997-2000), in the adult population.
Methods: Census Block (median 260 residents) Median per capita Income (CBMI) was computed through record linkage between 1998 national tax and local population registries in the cities of Rome, Turin, Milan and Bologna (total population approximately 5.5 million). CBMI was linked to acute hospital discharges among residents, based on patient's residence.Age-standardized gender-specific hospitalisation rates were computed by CBMI quintiles (first quintile indicating lowest income), overall, and by city and year. Heterogeneity of the association between income level and hospitalisation was analysed through a Poisson model.
Results: We found an inverse association between small area income level and hospitalisation rates, which decreased continuously from 153 per 1000 inhabitants in the first quintile to 107 per 1000 inhabitants in the fifth quintile. Income differences in hospitalisation were confirmed in each city and year. However, the magnitude of the association and the absolute level of hospitalisation rates were quite different in each city and tended to slightly decrease over time in all cities considered, except Bologna.
Conclusion: Our study confirms an inverse association between income level and the use of hospitalization in four Italian cities, using a small area economic indicator, based on population tax data. Further analysis of the association between income and cause-specific hospitalization rates will allow to better understand the capability of the Italian National Health System to compel with socio-economic inequalities in health needs.Furthermore the SEP indicator we propose can represent a contribution to the improvement of tools for monitoring inequalities in health and in health services utilization.