Fundamental health care reforms in Estonia started in 1991 with the introduction of a social health insurance system. While increasing the efficiency of the health care system was one of the targets of the health care reforms, equity issues have received relatively less attention. The objective of this study is to provide an overview of social inequalities in health care utilisation in Estonia in 1999, after 8 years of large-scale reforms. Data were obtained from a nationally representative household interview survey including 3990 respondents aged 25-74 years. Health care utilisation was measured by the telephone consultations, visits to the general practitioner, visits to the specialist, visits to the dentist, and hospitalisation. These utilisation measures were related to variables on ethnicity, place of residence, education, income and employment, by means of direct standardisation and logistic regression models. Three different regression models were applied in order to (a) describe social differences in health care utilisation, (b) to assess whether these differences can be explained by differences in health needs, and (c) to assess the independent effect of each social variable net of all other social variables. Substantial inequalities were observed for all types of health care services and according to most social dimensions. Residents of rural areas were more likely to visit a general practitioner or to use telephone consultation, but less often used outpatient specialist care or dentist care. Ethnic differences were generally smaller, with no consistently higher use by either Russians or ethnic Estonians. Large differences were observed in relation to socio-economic status (education, income, or employment), with a more favourable socio-economic status being associated with higher probability to use health care services, especially after controlling for health needs. In case of hospitalisation, however, no notable social inequalities were found. These findings suggest that important geographic, financial and information barriers to health care utilisation exist after almost one decade of health care reforms in Estonia. Further health care reforms should aim to lessen or even remove these barriers.

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Social Science & Medicine
Erasmus MC: University Medical Center Rotterdam

Habicht, J, & Kunst, A.E. (2005). Social inequalities in health care services utilisation after eight years of health care reforms: A cross-sectional study of Estonia, 1999. Social Science & Medicine, 60(4), 777–787. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2004.06.026