Background: Previous studies of variation in the magnitude of socioeconomic inequalities in health between countries have methodological drawbacks. We tried to overcome these difficulties in a large study that compared inequalities in morbidity and mortality between different countries in western Europe.
Methods: Data on four indicators of self-reported morbidity by level of education, occupational class, and/or level of income were obtained for 11 countries, and years ranging from 1985 to 1992. Data on total mortality by level of education and/or occupational class were obtained for nine countries for about 1980 to about 1990. We calculated odds ratios or rate ratios to compare a broad lower with a broad upper socioeconomic group. We also calculated an absolute measure for inequalities in mortality, a risk difference, which takes into account differences between countries in average rates of illhealth.
Findings: Inequalities in health were found in all countries. Odds ratios for morbidity ranged between about 1.5 and 2.5, and rate ratios for mortality between about 1.3 and 1.7. For men's perceived general health, for instance, inequalities by level of education in Norway were larger than in Switzerland or Spain (odds ratios [95% CI]: 2.57 [2.07-3.18], 1.60 [1.30-1.96], 1.65 [1.44-1.88], respectively). For mortality by occupational class, in men aged 30-44, the rate ratio was highest in Finland (1.76 [1.69-1.83]), although there was no large difference in the size of the inequality in those countries with data. For men aged 45-59, for whom France did have data, this country had the largest inequality (1.71 [1.66-1.77]). In the age-group 45-64, the absolute risk difference ranked Finland second after France (9.8% [9.1-10.4], 11.5% [10.7-12.4]), with Sweden and Norway coming out more favourably than on the basis of rate ratios. In a scatter-plot of average rank scores for morbidity versus mortality. Sweden and Norway had larger relative inequalities in health than most other countries for both measures; France fared badly for mortality but was average for morbidity.
Interpretation: Our results challenge conventional views on the between-country pattern of inequalities in health in western European countries.