Educational Inequalities in Hospital Use Among Older Adults in England, 2004-2015

Original Scholarship
Health Equity Health Insurance

Policy Points:

  • US policymakers considering proposals to expand public health care (such as “Medicare for all”) as a means of reducing inequalities in health care access and use could learn from the experiences of nations where well-funded universal health care systems are already in place.
  • In England, which has a publicly funded universal health care system, the use of core inpatient services by adults 65 years and older is equal across groups defined by education level, after controlling for health status. However, variation among these groups in the use of outpatient and emergency department care developed between 2010 and 2015, a period of relative financial austerity.
  • Based on England’s experience, introducing universal health care in the United States seems likely to reduce, but not entirely eliminate, inequalities in health care use across different population groups.

Context: Expanding access to health care is once again high on the US political agenda, as is concern about those who are being “left behind.” But is universal health care that is largely free at the point of use sufficient to eliminate inequalities in health care use? To explore this question, we studied variation in the use of hospital care among education-level-defined groups of older adults in England, before and after controlling for differences in health status. In England, the National Health Service (NHS) provides health care free to all, but the growth rate for NHS funding has slowed markedly since 2010 during a widespread austerity program, potentially increasing inequalities in access and use.

Methods: Novel linkage of data from six waves (2004-2015) of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) with participants’ hospital records (Hospital Episode Statistics [HES]) produced longitudinal data for 7,713 older adults (65 years and older) and 25,864 observations. We divided the sample into three groups by education level: low (no formal qualifications), mid (completed compulsory education), and high (at least some higher education). Four outcomes were examined: annual outpatient appointments, elective inpatient admissions, emergency inpatient admissions, and emergency department (ED) visits. We estimated regressions for the periods 2004-2005 to 2008-2009 and 2010-2011 to 2014-2015 to examine whether potential education-related inequalities in hospital use increased after the growth rate for NHS funding slowed in 2010.

Findings: For the study period, our sample of ELSA respondents in the low-education group made 2.44 annual outpatient visits. In comparison, after controlling for health status, we found that participants in the high-education group made an additional 0.29 outpatient visits annually (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.11-0.47). Additional outpatient health care use in the high-education group was driven by follow-up and routine appointments. This inequality widened after 2010. Between 2010 and 2015, individuals in the high-education group made 0.48 (95% CI, 0.21-0.74) more annual outpatient visits than those in the low-education (16.9% [7.5% to 26.2%] of annual average 2.82 visits). In contrast, after 2010, the high-education group made 0.04 (95% CI, −0.075 to 0.001) fewer annual ED visits than the low-education group, which had a mean of 0.30 annual ED visits. No significant differences by education level were found for elective or emergency inpatient admissions in either period.

Conclusions: After controlling for demographics and health status, there was no evidence of inequality in elective and emergency inpatient admissions among the education groups in our sample. However, a period of financial budget tightening for the NHS after 2010 was associated with the emergence of education gradients in other forms of hospital care, with respondents in the high-education group using more outpatient care and less ED care than peers in the low-education group. These estimates point to rising inequalities in the use of hospital care that, if not reversed, could exacerbate existing health inequalities in England. Although the US and UK settings differ in many ways, our results also suggest that a universal health care system would likely reduce inequality in US health care use.

Keywords: Health care inequalities, universal health care, educational inequalities, hospital utilization, health care funding, National Health Service.

Open Access

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Stoye G, Zaranko B, Shipley M, McKee M, Brunner EJ. Educational inequalities in hospital use among older adults in England, 2004-2015. Milbank Q. 2020;98(4):1134-1170.