In recent years, child poverty has increased in Catalonia as a result of the economic crisis. According to the 2016 figures from the Idescat, the latest figures available, and from 2009, children are the group most at risk of poverty, more than the adult population and also more than the 65-year-old or older population group.
“Child health and poverty. What can we learn from the data?” was the title of the conference held within the framework of the Celebration of the 2018 World Health Day.
Data from the latest report related to children and the effects of the crisis on the health of the population were highlighted at the conference, published by the Observatory of the Health System of Catalonia: children with a lower socio-economic level present up to 5 times more morbidity, consume more pharmaceutical drugs (three times more psychotropic drugs) than the remainder of the child population, visit mental health centres more frequently (5.9% of girls and 11.4% of boys as opposed to 1.3% and 2.2% in girls and boys with a higher socio-economic level) and are admitted more to hospitals (45 girls and 58 boys for every 1000 as opposed to 13 and 26, respectively) especially for psychiatric reasons.
A child’s health largely depends on the economy of their parents and those that belong to families with a lower socio-economic level have more health problems, a fact that can have disastrous consequences in other areas such as education and social life and which condition their future. This fact is exacerbated in the case of children with special needs or chronic diseases where their health suffers even more from the effects of poverty because in some cases their care requires specific products which families cannot afford.
This is one of the problems that we are facing right now. There is growing scientific evidence, both in biology and in social sciences, of the importance of the early years in life (including exposure in the womb) in the development of the capacities that stimulate personal well-being throughout the life cycle. Childhood is also a structural transmitter of inequalities, both from a health and socio-economic point of view. If nothing is done, boys and girls who belong to families with few resources run the risk of growing up into adults with worse health and a lower educational and socio-economic level than others.
What can we do? We can of course strengthen the social welfare state, with structural and institutional reforms which are more than ever necessary. Educational policy is fundamental, especially by reinforcing primary education, guaranteeing equal opportunities and putting the spotlight on those children in a disadvantaged situation. Once they are adult, active labour policies are also needed. And from health policies, despite their eminently palliative nature, primary and community care is particularly important as is guaranteeing care to all children.
The real novelty about this year’s report is that it is the first time that the socioeconomic inequalities in the state of health and the use of public health services have been analysed according to the socioeconomic level of the population using information of individuals of the entire population of Catalonia. To this end, a classification has been designed which takes both the employment situation and income of the person into consideration, based on the information of the social security benefits provided by the Social Security system and the information of the level of co-payment of medicines of people.
What reflections can we make?
The economic crisis of recent years has had a considerable impact on the social determinants of health, limiting the available income of citizens and affecting their conditions of life, work and housing. However, understanding the mechanisms of how social inequalities impact on the health of the population, so as to know how to combat and neutralise them in the most effective way, in every place and moment in time, is still an unresolved issue of our social policies.
Merely acknowledging the effects of the crisis on inequalities in income on the one hand, and on health on the other, gives no clear clues as to how elements arise and interact. Who could possibly think that the main cause of inequalities in health is a consequence of the effects of cuts in health expenditure in order to balance the drop in tax revenue? Or that the increase inequality would be eliminated by simply restoring financial levels to those of before the crisis?
It is true that some European health systems resisted better than others to the crisis and among the factors that could explain this better response is, according to some authors, public policies in health expenditure. Nevertheless, are we talking about the resilience in levels of expenditure or of systems that have been able to respond better to the crisis by refocusing available resources in each case, having accepted that a higher expenditure in health is not always better and that now, more than ever, it has been necessary to prioritise?
Are we then saying that it is inertia, or the incapacity of adapting to changing economic circumstances which is the decisive element? Is it perhaps not more likely that spending “a fixed amount” when facing a reduction in healthcare resources not only worsens the health of the population but makes it less equal? Are factors of demand decisive if higher unemployment rates, lower expectations of consumption, unpaid commitments made senselessly in the past and anxiety and the loss of self-esteem the important vectors?
To prevent more inequality, and not only a greater loss of health, we need to take on board some hypotheses about the behaviour of demand, resulting from of the elasticities between price and income to be able to identify an increase in inequalities in health as a result of the economic crisis.
This might not occur, however, if the system lost universality, were more selective and better prioritised the new and greater relative needs of certain social groups. Or if in the case where elasticity of income existed, groups with medium/high incomes abandoned the complementary insurances which would in turn affect their health.
We can see that these cannot be unusual assumptions for some, because they would follow the same logic as that of many analysts that link health results to healthcare use (but not to appropriately standardised needs), attributing higher levels of health to the users of the services that combine access to both public and private healthcare services.
Other forms of social protection, such as those that would ensure adequate levels of public health expenditure, avoiding loopholes in health coverage, both legal and of cost of opportunity of access to free services, should be considered in a much more specific way. This can affect freelance and self-employed workers, illegal immigrants and regular employees who avoid absenteeism for fear of losing their jobs, and also those citizens that have lower levels of direct payment to cover the costs of alternative private healthcare services
In fact, in general, a change in inequality of income due to an additional increase in unemployment (in the case of Spain) is not the same reaction mechanism as that of an increase in the incomes of the richest with respect to the poorest (as in the case of Nordic countries), or in contexts in which the loss of employment reduces stress and facilitates “jogging” as some American literature points out.
Admittedly, all this must be put within the context of each situation, given the lifestyles, and not assessing income but wealth (the composition of assets here is important considering the huge drop in the prices of assets, with greater effects in large estates), be it by individual, salary earner or head of family.
What is more, even if the mechanisms that interact in health inequalities of socioeconomic origin can be identified, caution obliges one to limit conclusion to a specific country, time and place, with doubts about whether what is known of the past can inform the corrections needed in the future with guarantees.
Reviewing the literature on the impact of the economic crises on the health of populations, prior to the 2008 crisis, and considering all the previous clarifications and nuances, it all points towards an increase in the death rate as a result of all the causes associated with unemployment, of an increase in suicides, albeit with certain nuances, and of an increase in mental health problems. The people most affected by the effects of the crisis are those belonging to the most vulnerable groups (in particular, people of long term unemployment) and children.
In Spain, some global indicators such as life expectancy or the general death rate do not seem to have been affected by the recent economic crisis although there is evidence of the effects of the crisis on health determinants, changes in some lifestyles and in some cases of access to healthcare services.
Beyond the limitations that the data impose, ceteris paribus, in the future it will be very important to monitor the different waves of analysis that the Observatory might offer, so as to understand what vectors provoke variations in the inequalities observed, and inasmuch as these are relevant in the political approach (as the pioneering work of John Roemer reminds us, not all inequalities are in fact precisely that), and how to approach them based on the understanding of how their fundamental mechanisms work.
This emphasises the importance of how an analysis should generate more efforts from scholars and less of a supposed preoccupation of some groups who make political use of the subject of socioeconomic inequalities and health to set their own objectives which do not always correspond to general interests.
Post written by Anna García-Altés (@annagaal) and Guillem López Casasnovas.
The right to receive advice with regards to the information available on the network is reflected in the Carta de drets i deures de la ciutadania en relació a la salut i l’atenció sanitària (Citizens Bill of Rights and Duties relating to health and healthcare), updated in 2015. In particular, it specifies that a person has the right to obtain accurate and reliable recommendations from health professionals in terms of the available health information on the network (web pages, applications, etc…).
It is a fact that, from different professional sectors, we are more and more frequently identifying citizens as a key group to take into consideration when communicating the outcomes of our work, including the health sector. The different actors involved in disseminating health information resulting from the Catalan health system activity are no exception. When we publish our data we do it more and more in a way that is not only aimed at informing health professionals on the one hand but also at being accountable to citizens as end users.
But have we really asked citizens what information they want to obtain from us?
From the Results Centre of the Catalan Health System Observatory we publish a series of reports annually with quantitative indicators that aim to measure, assess and disseminate the results obtained in the different areas of the public health system. Up to the present, to disseminate this information beyond the comfort zone of the health sector, we have published a series of infographics with the information that we have considered to be most relevant for citizens, making the effort to create a user friendly format.
During the first semester of 2016, we spent time reflecting on our labour and we realised that we did not in fact know whether what we were publishing for citizens really reached or interested them. We did not even know what it was that citizens wanted to receive from us. To answer these questions we carried out a qualitative study of Catalan citizens to find out what their needs for health information were, but not limiting ourselves to that produced by the Results Centre.
We created three discussion groups and invited citizens randomly selected from Registre Central d’Assegurats del CatSalut (CatSalut’s Central Registry of the Insured) to freely express what they felt their necessities for health information were. What we discovered was that the population is not interested in receiving health information in a general or systematic way but rather only wants health information when they have a specific personal need and which is directly related to what is affecting them at a given time. They are not interested, therefore, in receiving health information about the population as a whole nor of how the health system works. They state that this information is necessary but feel it is health professionals who need to have it and know how to manage it. In this way, they place their trust in the health system by dissociating themselves from this type of information.
Furthermore, they consider it of interest that the information be made available on the networks but state that, whether they actively search for it on the internet or not, what they need is to be able to contrast the information at a later stage with their primary care physician or specialist, and that it be this professional who discerns what the best information available is for each occasion. What is more, they clearly identify this professional as being the person who needs to know the health information produced systematically by the Catalan health system.
We presented the results of this study at a recent congress, to be exact, the XXXIV Congress of the Spanish Society for the Quality of Healthcare and the XXI Congress of the Andalusian Society for the Quality of Healthcare, generating a very interesting posterior debate regarding these results. One of the attendees at the congress stated their concern for the fact that citizens were not interested in receiving general health information. The debate centred on how we could educate the population into showing an interest in this information and on how to make it reach them. We believe that the key underlying question here is whether this need be done at all.
The public at large have an overwhelming amount of information at their disposal on an infinite number of different subjects on a daily basis. It seems clear that when a person has a specific need regarding their state of health they consult a professional in whom they trust. It is obvious that to us, as healthcare professionals, we will always feel that the information we produce is of such interest as to make others want to know about it, but it is also probable that our enthusiasm makes us biased when interpreting reality. We should perhaps ask ourselves whether we need to make the effort to provide the public with information they say they do not need nor interests them, and whether we are prepared to accept their decision and respect it.
Post written by Dolores Ruiz-Muñoz, Anna García-Altés and Hortènsia Aguado.
The information generated by the interaction of citizens and the healthcare system keeps increasing in size. Just to get an idea, last year, only in Catalonia there were nearly 45 million consultations in primary care centres, more than 700.000 patients were hospitalised, and over 150 million prescriptions were made. However, there is much more stored in administrative records (diagnostic tests, medical imaging, hospital prescriptions, expenditures, etc.) which are kept and managed in large databases. Government officials are responsible for the safe keeping of this information, and it may use it to improve the quality of healthcare and for healthcare planning purposes.
Furthermore, advances in the development, interoperability and crosslinking of the different information systems are making it easier to gather a large amount of data that will contribute to better characterise both the general and the patient population, and they are essential to assess the results of healthcare policies.
There is a wealth of opportunities with the increasing amount of data, all of them available in electronic formats and with more quality, and with the better linking between administrative databases. Thus, the information gathered leads to new ways of generating knowledge, especially when multiple data sources are combined (genetic, environmental, socio-economic, etc.) and made available to the citizens.
This turns information into a valuable asset for planning and assessment, but also for third parties, especially in research and in initiatives aimed at enhancing the use of open data.
Open data are a actually a philosophy, as they represent a practice that encourages the free access of data for everyone, without technical limitations. This means that the original files containing the data are available to the public in the most structured way as possible. This enables any computer system to read them, and even to easily develop software based on them.
This trend towards freeing the access to data is parallel to the need of the Catalan healthcare system of managing the whole life cycle of information, from the generation of information to the knowledge dissemination.
Information and communication technologies, and information systems become key strategic allies to achieve the above objectives, and to succeed in the integration, transparency, assessment and accountability by the healthcare system and its different actors.
In the case of Catalonia, the Autonomous Government is committed to a progressive disclosure of the available public data while respecting the privacy, safety and property limitations applicable in each case through the Open Data portal, where all data are indexed and characterised. This is done following the international trends regarding the disclosure of public data, and it counts with the advice from the W3C experts (World Wide Web Consortium).
The Department of Health is thus also joining the initiative of supporting free access to data and public information. This will enable to further advance towards an open government system, based on the values of transparency, service and efficiency, on promoting the generation of value through reusing public information, on easing the internal organisation of the information systems, and on fostering interoperability among the components of the healthcare system.
The Catalan Health System Observatory collaborates in this project by favouring the knowledge about the healthcare sector in Catalonia, and by supplying the citizens with health information to assess the healthcare system itself, to support decision-making and to favour transparency and accountability. With this objective, the Observatory is strongly determined to unveil to the general public all the information regarding their healthcare system. Along with other products, the Observatory publishes on its website a set of health and healthcare activity indicators, consisting of texts, charts and open data files.
Additionally, all the data published in the Observatory reports (Results Centre, Crisis & health, etc.) are also available to the public as open data formats and infographics. Finally, the Observatory website provides a link to the open data portal and a collection of health open data available up to date.
Check the open data available at the Observatory website!
What has happened in periods of economic crisis has also occurred at other moments in time and in other contexts. It is also a well-known fact that this can lead to an increase in mortality rates among the population (both due to general causes, as well as for certain specific causes, such as suicide), an increase in mental health problems and a worsening of lifestyles. We also know that inequalities in healthcare can increase, particularly as the crisis affects the most vulnerable members of society first.
The second report from the Observatory on the effects of the crisis on public health, publicly presented just before the Christmas holidays, closely monitors the principal socio-economic and health indicators at a territorial level (by regions) and analyses their evolution. It also analyses the relationship between socioeconomic and health indicators and provides information to define, or redefine, strategies aimed at tackling the effects of the crisis based on the needs identified through the report.
In this period of crisis in Catalonia, long-term unemployment, above all, has increased, and production (the gross value added in the economy) has declined. Household income has fallen, the percentage of people living below the poverty line has increased, especially those under 16 years of age, and the percentage of families receiving assistance from the social protection system has increased.
The fall in public revenue triggered a decrease in the budget, including the budget of the Department of Health, which was especially significant between 2011 and 2013. The health sector was forced to adjust, doing the same work but with less resources, improving efficiency while making every effort to do so without hindering the quantity and quality of healthcare service provision. However, in the period 2007-2013, life expectancy increased by 1.8 years (1.5 in women and 2.6 in men), as has been the case for life expectancy in good health.
Nevertheless, the impact of the economic situation on people’s health is evident: the unemployed have worse self-perceived health, especially those who have been out of work for over a year and present a higher risk prevalence of poor mental health. Similarly, tobacco sales, which is on the decline population-wide, increased among the unemployed, especially among men. Excessive alcohol consumption levels are also higher among the unemployed.
Focusing the analysis on the most vulnerable social groups, the report compares the population group aged 15 to 64 years, in other words, those who are exempt from the pharmacy copayment rates (basically unemployed people who have lost the right to unemployment benefits, receiving social insertion benefits, or have non-contributory pensions), with those who are subject to copayment. In Catalonia, in 2014 there were 187,775 people aged between 15 and 64, exempt from copayment rates (2.3% of the population). Those who were exempt are statistically twice as likely to consume psychoactive drugs that people subject to co-payment and have 1.5 times greater likelihood of being admitted to hospital. This group made 1.4 times the number of visits to primary care, and were treated in mental health centres 3.5 times more than the other group.
There is no question that public, social and economic policy has an impact on a population’s level of health and that they modulate the influence of socioeconomic, gender and immigration factors on health inequalities. Social protection policies seem to be effective in cushioning the influence of macroeconomic fluctuations on mortality rates. Policies aimed at equality contribute to improving health inequalities. The consequences of the crisis in Russia in the early 90s had little in comparison with those suffered by Finland during the same period. The main reason for this being the policies implemented by both governments.
Given the complexity and the multiple impacts produced by economic crises, the public policy-centred method to mitigate its effects must be approached from different sectors. Tools like the Interdepartmental Public Health Plan (PINSAP), as per the Catalan acronym, are key to ensuring this cross-sectoral approach, targeting factors which impact health to reduce or eliminate health inequalities. Another fundamental step is to maintain social protection (unemployment benefits, retirement benefits, family assistance, etc.) to mitigate the decline in family income and its consequences. However, this must go hand-in-hand with policy aimed at generating employment and promoting the rapid reintegration into the workplace. Education policy is the other mainstay, given the relationship between education, income and health, and the fact that it acts as a “social ladder” between generations. Policies aimed at the most vulnerable groups, such as lower income families and children, also deserve special attention.
Finally, it is essential that the implementation of these public policies are evaluated in the medium and long-term in order to continually validate their utility and impact, and to enable policymakers to adapt these programs to meet an ever-changing environment.
Post written by Veva Barba, Dolores Ruiz-Muñoz and Anna García-Altés (@annagaal),