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      Understanding the role of welfare state characteristics for health and inequalities – an analytical review

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          Abstract

          Background

          The past decade has witnessed a growing body of research on welfare state characteristics and health inequalities but the picture is, despite this, inconsistent. We aim to review this research by focusing on theoretical and methodological differences between studies that at least in part may lead to these mixed findings.

          Methods

          Three reviews and relevant bibliographies were manually explored in order to find studies for the review. Related articles were searched for in PubMed, Web of Science and Google Scholar. Database searches were done in PubMed and Web of Science. The search period was restricted to 2005-01-01 to 2013-02-28. Fifty-four studies met the inclusion criteria.

          Results

          Three main approaches to comparative welfare state research are identified; the Regime approach, the Institutional approach, and the Expenditure approach. The Regime approach is the most common and regardless of the empirical regime theory employed and the amendments made to these, results are diverse and contradictory. When stratifying studies according to other features, not much added clarity is achieved. The Institutional approach shows more consistent results; generous policies and benefits seem to be associated with health in a positive way for all people in a population, not only those who are directly affected or targeted. The Expenditure approach finds that social and health spending is associated with increased levels of health and smaller health inequalities in one way or another but the studies are few in numbers making it somewhat difficult to get coherent results.

          Conclusions

          Based on earlier reviews and our results we suggest that future research should focus less on welfare regimes and health inequalities and more on a multitude of different types of studies, including larger analyses of social spending and social rights in various policy areas and how these are linked to health in different social strata. But, we also need more detailed evaluation of specific programmes or interventions, as well as more qualitative analyses of the experiences of different types of policies among the people and families that need to draw on the collective resources.

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          Most cited references 57

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          The Paradox of Redistribution and Strategies of Equality: Welfare State Institutions, Inequality, and Poverty in the Western Countries

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            Socioeconomic inequalities in morbidity and mortality in western Europe. The EU Working Group on Socioeconomic Inequalities in Health.

            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. 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. 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. Our results challenge conventional views on the between-country pattern of inequalities in health in western European countries.
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              Trends in socioeconomic inequalities in self-assessed health in 10 European countries.

              Changes over time in inequalities in self-reported health are studied for increasingly more countries, but a comprehensive overview encompassing several countries is still lacking. The general aim of this article is to determine whether inequalities in self-assessed health in 10 European countries showed a general tendency either to increase or to decrease between the 1980s and the 1990s and whether trends varied among countries. Data were obtained from nationally representative interview surveys held in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, The Netherlands, West Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain. The proportion of respondents with self-assessed health less than 'good' was measured in relation to educational level and income level. Inequalities were measured by means of age-standardized prevalence rates and odds ratios (ORs). Socioeconomic inequalities in self-assessed health showed a high degree of stability in European countries. For all countries together, the ORs comparing low with high educational levels remained stable for men (2.61 in the 1980s and 2.54 in the 1990s) but increased slightly for women (from 2.48 to 2.70). The ORs comparing extreme income quintiles increased from 3.13 to 3.37 for men and from 2.43 to 2.86 for women. Increases could be demonstrated most clearly for Italian and Spanish men and women, and for Dutch women, whereas inequalities in health in the Nordic countries showed no tendency to increase. The results underscore the persistent nature of socioeconomic inequalities in health in modern societies. The relatively favourable trends in the Nordic countries suggest that these countries' welfare states were able to buffer many of the adverse effects of economic crises on the health of disadvantaged groups.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                BMC Public Health
                BMC Public Health
                BMC Public Health
                BioMed Central
                1471-2458
                2013
                27 December 2013
                : 13
                : 1234
                Affiliations
                [1 ]Centre for Health Equity Studies, Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
                [2 ]Department of Health Sciences, Mid Sweden University, Östersund, Sweden
                Article
                1471-2458-13-1234
                10.1186/1471-2458-13-1234
                3909317
                24369852
                Copyright © 2013 Bergqvist et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

                This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

                Categories
                Research Article

                Public health

                welfare regime, social expenditure, health inequalities, health, welfare institutions

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