Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Health Services Research and BioMed Central.

Open Access Research article

Perceptions of unmet healthcare needs: what do Punjabi and Chinese-speaking immigrants think? A qualitative study

Emily G Marshall1, Sabrina T Wong2*, Jeannie L Haggerty34 and Jean-Fréderic Levesque56

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Family Medicine, Dalhousie University, 5909 Veteran's Memorial Lane, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3H 4H7, Canada

2 School of Nursing and Center for Health Services and Policy Research, University of British Columbia, 2211 Wesbrook Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia, V6T-2B5, Canada

3 Department of Family Medicine, Université de Sherbrooke, 1111 Rue Saint-Charles Ouest, Longueuil, Quebec, J4K 5G4, Canada

4 Department of Community Health Sciences, Université de Sherbrooke; 1111 Rue Saint-Charles Ouest, Longueuil, Quebec, J4K 5G4, Canada

5 Institut national de santé publique du Québec, 945 Avenue Wolfe, Québec, G1V 5B3, Canada

6 Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, 2900, boulevard Édouard-Montpetit, Montréal, Québec, H3T 1J4, Canada

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Health Services Research 2010, 10:46  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-10-46

Published: 22 February 2010



Unmet healthcare needs - the difference between healthcare services deemed necessary to deal with a particular health problem and the actual services received - is commonly measured by the question, "During the past 12 months, was there ever a time when you felt that you needed healthcare, but you didn't receive it?" In 2003, unmet needs were reported by 10% of immigrants in Canada, yet, little is known specifically about Chinese- or Punjabi-speaking immigrants' perceptions and reporting of unmet needs. Our study examined: 1) How are unmet healthcare needs conceptualized among Chinese- and Punjabi-speaking immigrants? 2) Are their primary healthcare experiences related to their unmet healthcare needs?


Twelve focus groups (6 Chinese, 6 Punjabi; n = 78) were conducted in Chinese or Punjabi and socio-demographic and health data were collected. Thematic analysis of focus group data examined the perceptions of unmet needs and any relationship to primary healthcare experiences.


Our analysis revealed two overarching themes: 1) defining an unmet healthcare need and 2) identifying an unmet need. Participants had unmet healthcare needs in relation to barriers to accessing care, their lack of health system literacy, and when the health system was less responsive than their expectations.


Asking whether someone ever had a time when they needed healthcare but did not receive it can either underestimate or overestimate unmet need. Measuring unmet need using single items is likely insufficient since more detail in a revised set of questions could begin to clarify whether the reporting of an unmet need was based on an expectation or a clinical need. Who defines what an unmet healthcare need is depends on the context (insured versus uninsured health services, experience in two or more healthcare systems versus experience in one healthcare system) and who is defining it (provider, patient, insurer).