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date: 07 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

Recent developments in the analysis of inequality in health and healthcare have turned their interest into an explicit normative understanding of the sources of inequalities that calls upon the concept of equality of opportunity. According to this concept, some sources of inequality are more objectionable than others and could represent priorities for policies aiming to reduce inequality in healthcare use, access, or health status.

Equality of opportunity draws a distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” sources of inequality. While legitimate sources of differences can be attributed to the consequences of individual effort (i.e. determinants within the individual’s control), illegitimate sources of differences are related to circumstances (i.e. determinants beyond the individual’s responsibility).

The study of inequality of opportunity is rooted in social justice research, and the last decade has seen a rapid growth in empirical work using this literature at the core of its approach in both developed and developing countries. Empirical research on inequality of opportunity in health and healthcare is mainly driven by data availability. Most studies in adult populations are based on data from European countries, especially from the UK, while studies analyzing inequalities of opportunity among children are usually based on data from low- or middle-income countries and focus on children under five years old.

Regarding the choice of circumstances, most studies have considered social background to be an illegitimate source of inequality in health and healthcare. Geographical dimensions have also been taken into account, but to a lesser extent, and more frequently in studies focusing on children or those based on data from countries outside Europe. Regarding effort variables or legitimate sources of health inequality, there is wide use of smoking-related variables.

Regardless of the population, health outcome, and circumstances considered, scholars have provided evidence of illegitimate inequality in health and healthcare. Studies on inequality of opportunity in healthcare are mainly found in children population; this emphasizes the need to tackle inequality as early as possible.

Keywords: health, equality of opportunity, inequality, circumstances, effort, health economics

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