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A comparison of individual and area-based socio-economic data for monitoring social inequalities in health

Publication: Health Reports 2009:20(4)

Authors: Robert Pampalon, Denis Hamel and Philippe Gamache

Data: 1991 Census of Canada and deaths from June 4, 1991 to December 31, 2001

This research  compared the ability of individual level and area-based indicators to track health outcomes by socio-economic group.  The authors undertook this analysis because area-based information is often the only type of data available in health administrative files.  In this case, however, they had access to both types of data from a file that linked the results of the 1991 Census with deaths that occurred from 1991 to 2000.

They found that while individual-level  data show wider gaps in life expectancy, both types of data are associated with inequalities by socio-economic status. For example, based on indicators  of material deprivation (income, education, employment, marital status and living arrangements), the difference in life expectancy between the most advantaged and the least advantaged is 8.8 years according to  individual data and 3.5 years according to  area-based data.  The differences persist for measures of social deprivation, and for disability-free life expectancy.

Although this research demonstrates that individual-level data are more precise, it  demonstrates the utility of area-based data when information about individuals is not available.

Figure 1
Life expectancy at age 25 according to individual and enumeration area versions of deprivation index, by material and social deprivation quintile, Canada, 1991 to 2001

Full article

For more information, contact Robert Pampalon (1-418-650-5115, ext. 5719;, Institut national de santé publique du Québec.