Waiting times and socioeconomic status: evidence from England

Soc Sci Med. 2012 May;74(9):1331-41. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.12.049. Epub 2012 Feb 21.


Waiting times for elective surgery, like hip replacement, are often referred to as an equitable rationing mechanism in publicly-funded healthcare systems because access to care is not based on socioeconomic status. Previous work has established that that this may not be the case and there is evidence of inequality in NHS waiting times favouring patients living in the least deprived neighbourhoods in England. We advance the literature by explaining variations of inequalities in waiting times in England in four different ways. First, we ask whether inequalities are driven by education rather than income. Our analysis shows that education and income deprivation have distinct effects on waiting time. Patients in the first quintile with least deprivation in education wait 9% less than patients in the second quintile and 14% less than patients in the third-to-fifth quintile. Patients in the fourth and fifth most income-deprived quintile wait about 7% longer than patients in the least deprived quintile. Second, we investigate whether inequalities arise "across" hospitals or "within" the hospital. The analysis provides evidence that most inequalities occur within hospitals rather than across hospitals. Moreover, failure to control for hospital fixed effects results in underestimation of the income gradient. Third, we explore whether inequalities arise across the entire waiting time distribution. Inequalities between better educated patients and other patients occur over large part of the waiting time distribution. Moreover we find that the education gradient becomes smaller for very long waiting. Fourth, we investigate whether the gradient may reflect the fact that patients with higher socioeconomic status have a different severity as proxied through a range of types and the number of diagnoses (in addition to age and gender) compared to those with lower socioeconomic status. We find no evidence that differences in severity explain the social gradient in waiting times.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Arthroplasty, Replacement, Hip / economics*
  • Educational Status
  • England
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Income / statistics & numerical data
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Econometric
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Social Class*
  • State Medicine
  • Waiting Lists*