Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Socioeconomic patterns in the use of public and private health services and equity in health care

Enrique Regidor*, David Martínez, María E Calle, Paloma Astasio, Paloma Ortega and Vicente Domínguez

Author Affiliations

Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Health Services Research 2008, 8:183  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-8-183

Published: 14 September 2008



Several studies in wealthy countries suggest that utilization of GP and hospital services, after adjusting for health care need, is equitable or pro-poor, whereas specialist care tends to favour the better off. Horizontal equity in these studies has not been evaluated appropriately, since the use of healthcare services is analysed without distinguishing between public and private services. The purpose of this study is to estimate the relation between socioeconomic position and health services use to determine whether the findings are compatible with the attainment of horizontal equity: equal use of public healthcare services for equal need.


Data from a sample of 18,837 Spanish subjects were analysed to calculate the percentage of use of public and private general practitioner (GP), specialist and hospital care according to three indicators of socioeconomic position: educational level, social class and income. The percentage ratio was used to estimate the magnitude of the relation between each measure of socioeconomic position and the use of each health service.


After adjusting for age, sex and number of chronic diseases, a gradient was observed in the magnitude of the percentage ratio for public GP visits and hospitalisation: persons in the lowest socioeconomic position were 61–88% more likely to visit public GPs and 39–57% more likely to use public hospitalisation than those in the highest socioeconomic position. In general, the percentage ratio did not show significant socioeconomic differences in the use of public sector specialists. The magnitude of the percentage ratio in the use of the three private services also showed a socioeconomic gradient, but in exactly the opposite direction of the gradient observed in the public services.


These findings show inequity in GP visits and hospitalisations, favouring the lower socioeconomic groups, and equity in the use of the specialist physician. These inequities could represent an overuse of public healthcare services or could be due to the fact that persons in high socioeconomic positions choose to use private health services.