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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

From causes to solutions - insights from lay knowledge about health inequalities

Christine Putland, Fran E Baum* and Anna M Ziersch

Author Affiliations

Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity, Flinders University, Bedford Park, South Australia

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:67  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-67

Published: 31 January 2011

Abstract

Background

This paper reports on a qualitative study of lay knowledge about health inequalities and solutions to address them. Social determinants of health are responsible for a large proportion of health inequalities (unequal levels of health status) and inequities (unfair access to health services and resources) within and between countries. Despite an expanding evidence base supporting action on social determinants, understanding of the impact of these determinants is not widespread and political will appears to be lacking. A small but growing body of research has explored how ordinary people theorise health inequalities and the implications for taking action. The findings are variable, however, in terms of an emphasis on structure versus individual agency and the relationship between being 'at risk' and acceptance of social/structural explanations.

Methods

This paper draws on findings from a qualitative study conducted in Adelaide, South Australia, to examine these questions. The study was an integral part of mixed-methods research on the links between urban location, social capital and health. It comprised 80 in-depth interviews with residents in four locations with contrasting socio-economic status. The respondents were asked about the cause of inequalities and actions that could be taken by governments to address them.

Results

Although generally willing to discuss health inequalities, many study participants tended to explain the latter in terms of individual behaviours and attitudes rather than social/structural conditions. Moreover, those who identified social/structural causes tended to emphasise individualized factors when describing typical pathways to health outcomes. This pattern appeared largely independent of participants' own experience of advantage or disadvantage, and was reinforced in discussion of strategies to address health inequalities.

Conclusions

Despite the explicit emphasis on social/structural issues expressed in the study focus and framing of the research questions, participants did not display a high level of knowledge about the nature and causes of place-based health inequalities. By extending the scope of lay theorizing to include a focus on solutions, this study offers additional insights for public health. Specifically it suggests that a popular constituency for action on the social determinants of health is unlikely to eventuate from the current popular understandings of possible policy levers.