An evaluation of gender equity in different models of primary care practices in Ontario
© Dahrouge et al. 2010
Received: 22 September 2009
Accepted: 23 March 2010
Published: 23 March 2010
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© Dahrouge et al. 2010
Received: 22 September 2009
Accepted: 23 March 2010
Published: 23 March 2010
The World Health Organization calls for more work evaluating the effect of health care reforms on gender equity in developed countries. We performed this evaluation in Ontario, Canada where primary care models resulting from reforms co-exist.
This cross sectional study of primary care practices uses data collected in 2005-2006. Healthcare service models included in the study consist of fee for service (FFS) based, salaried, and capitation based. We compared the quality of care delivered to women and men in practices of each model. We performed multi-level, multivariate regressions adjusting for patient socio-demographic and economic factors to evaluate vertical equity, and adjusting for these and health factors in evaluating horizontal equity. We measured seven dimensions of health service delivery (e.g. accessibility and continuity) and three dimensions of quality of care using patient surveys (n = 5,361) and chart abstractions (n = 4,108).
Health service delivery measures were comparable in women and men, with differences ≤ 2.2% in all seven dimensions and in all models. Significant gender differences in the health promotion subjects addressed were observed. Female specific preventive manoeuvres were more likely to be performed than other preventive care. Men attending FFS practices were more likely to receive influenza immunization than women (Adjusted odds ratio: 1.75, 95% confidence intervals (CI) 1.05, 2.92). There was no difference in the other three prevention indicators. FFS practices were also more likely to provide recommended care for chronic diseases to men than women (Adjusted difference of -11.2%, CI -21.7, -0.8). A similar trend was observed in Community Health Centers (CHC).
The observed differences in the type of health promotion subjects discussed are likely an appropriate response to the differential healthcare needs between genders. Chronic disease care is non equitable in FFS but not in capitation based models. We recommend that efforts to monitor and address gender based differences in the delivery of chronic disease management in primary care be pursued.
Primary care is the foundation of the Canadian health care system. Recent Canadian  and international policy recommendations  have emphasised the need for investments in primary health care systems to improve efficiencies and reduce inequities. There is convincing evidence that stronger primary health care systems can reduce disparities in health between regions . However few studies have investigated whether the organization of the primary care system impacts on equitable care across individuals.
Evaluations of equity can be seen from two perspectives. Vertical equity addresses whether treatment is preferentially delivered to those with greater health needs, while horizontal equity considers whether there is the provision of equal treatment for equivalent needs . For example, vertical equity would dictate that an individual with multiple health problems should receive greater care than a healthy individual, while horizontal equity would require that two individuals with similar health status receive similar care levels regardless, for example, of their socio-economic status. Both paradigms are important to consider.
Ontario, Canada's largest province, organises primary care practices under different "models of care", most of which emerged following a series of provincial initiatives over the past four decades that aim to build a more accessible, patient oriented system and eliminate the barriers inherent in the traditional Fee For Service (FFS) model . The first attempts at reforming primary care came with the introduction of Community Health Centres (CHC) and Health Service Organizations (HSO) in the 1970s. CHCs are a community orientated model in which providers are salaried. Integral in many CHCs' mission statement are the notions of social justice and equity [6–8]. HSO is a capitation based model; a payment structure that offers a fixed monthly remuneration fee based on the age and sex of enrolled patients for basic primary care services, regardless of the number of services provided . A second capitation model which also offered additional accessibility and comprehensiveness incentives, Family Health Networks, (FHNs) was established in the early 2000s. Because compensation in capitation based practices is dissociated from visit number, proponents of this type of remuneration approach expect care to be more equitably dispensed; in response to need with reduced concerns over output. In fact, primary care capitation based funding was recently introduced in New Zealand  and Thailand  in part in an effort to reduce inequities. Today, capitation based practices and CHCs serve approximately 40%, and 3%, respectively of the population in Ontario.
Some studies have evaluated the impact of these reforms on the quality of the care delivered, [12, 13] but none have studied their impact on the equitable delivery of care. In a recent review, the World Health Organization calls for more work evaluating the effect of health care reforms on gender equity . This study evaluates whether gender differences in the primary care experience in each model exist and whether the extent of gender differences between models differs. This study is part of a larger evaluation exploring the impact of primary care reforms on equity.
This study uses data from a cross sectional study conducted in Ontario, Canada in 2005-6; the Comparison of Models in Primary Care (COMP-PC) . Data were gathered from primary care practices, providers (family physicians and nurse practitioners) and patients receiving care at these practices. A detailed description of the overall study methodology is available elsewhere. The study was approved by the Ottawa Hospital Research Ethics Board.
Ontario's main primary care models in 2005/2006.
Community Health Centre (CHC)
Fee for service (FFS)
Family Health Network (FHN)
Health Service Organization (HSO)
Fee for Service
Family Health Groups (FHG) 1
Groups practice - Unspecified size
FFS and incentives
Capitation2 with a 10% FFS component, and incentives
No roster size limit
No roster size limit
Disincentive to enrol >2,4003
Disincentive to enrol >2,4003
No specified requirements
No specified requirements
Assistance for Information Technology
Responsiveness to population needs, multi-disciplinarity, prevention, focus on underserved, equity community governed
Accessibility, comprehensiveness, doctor-nurse collaboration, use of technology
Responsiveness to population needs, multi-disciplinarity, health promotion, cost effectiveness
The study recruited 137 practices, surveyed 5,361 patients in the waiting room sequentially (response rate: 82%) as they presented for their appointment ("index visit") and performed a review of 4,108 randomly/systematically selected charts. Those patients not participating in the survey most frequently sited a lack of time to participate. Surveyed patients (30-50/practice) were required to be under the care of one of the participating providers, aged 18 years or older, not severely ill or cognitively impaired, and able to communicate in English or French either directly or through a translator. Charts reviewed were limited to those of patients ages 18 years and older who had been with the practice at least two years.
Surveys were adapted from the Primary Care Assessment Tool (PCAT)-Adult edition[16, 17] and supplemented with two additional scales [18, 19]. The patient survey was divided into two sections. The first was completed in the waiting room before the encounter with the provider and captured socio-demographic and economic information, and elicited patient's experience on the quality of health service delivery. The second was completed after the appointment with the provider and captured visit-specific information, including a measure of health promotion activity. The survey tool was available in English and French . Translators were used in practices in which a significant proportion of the population was expected to have limited or no English or French language skills.
The chart audit collected patient sex, age, and insurance status and measured preventive care and chronic disease management by comparing chart documentation of these activities against recommended guidelines. We measured the provider's recommendation for a manoeuvre rather than patient compliance, and coded it as "done" if it was performed or recommended/discussed even it not done.
Scales for the measurement of performance
Quality of Health Care Service Deliverya (items in the scale, categories in the likert scale of each item)
Source of data
Overall score rangesc
First contact accessibility (4, 4)
74% - 83%
First contact utilization (3, 4)
96% - 98%
Humanism (8, 7)
90% - 91%
Trust (10, 5)
87% - 88%
Cultural competency (3, 4)
83% - 85%
Family centeredness (3, 4)
89% - 90%
Ongoing care (4, 4)
85% - 90%
Technical Quality of Clinical Care Delivery b - Adherence to recommended guidelines (items in the scale)
Healthy lifestyle counseling (7)
46% - 59%
Preventive care (6)
52% - 68%
Chronic Disease Management
Chronic disease management (9)
60% - 72%
Profile of patients by gender
Survey patient profile
1 Socio-demographic and economic profile
SE Age (mean‡, median in years)
SE Household income (% under LICO)‡
SE Low education (% with less than high school degree) *
SE Not speaking English or French at home (%)
SE Aboriginal (%)*
SE Uninsured (in Canada) (%)
SE Not working outside the house (%)
SE Recent immigrant (< 5 years) (%)
SE Rurality index (mean)
SE Distance from home to practice > 10 km (%)
H At least one day with poor mental health in past 30 days (%)‡
H At least one day with poor physical health in past 30 days (%)‡
H At least one day limited by poor mental or physical health in past 30 days (%)*
H Physical, mental or emotional problem lasting more than one year (%)
H Self perceived health good-excellent (%)
H Presence of at least one chronic disease/Number of chronic diseases (%)
Relationship with the practice
Provider is a Nurse Practitioner (%)‡
Seeing their own provider at that visit (%)
Attending the practice for more than 2 years (%)
Number of visits to the office in previous year (mean†, median)
Main reason for visit - Check up/Chronic problem/Recent problem
Chart audit patient profile
Uninsured in Ontario (%)*
Age (mean‡, median in years)
Number of visits to the office in previous year (mean‡, median)
We performed multi-level linear regressions for continuous outcomes using SPSS 16, and multi-level logistic regressions for binary outcomes using the Glimmix procedure in SAS. The analyses were stratified by model. All results shown reflect the effect of being a female compared to being a male.
The effect sizes (absolute beta values) of the gender variable in each model derived from the regressions performed to meet objective #1 were compared using the t-statistics to evaluate whether models were significantly different in their gender effect.
When meaningful gender differences are observed, we estimated the adjusted performance level for the "typical" women and men. Using the beta coefficients from the regression equation developed to meet objective #1, we calculated the performance level for the "typical" practice patient.
The study population was determined to be adequately representative of its underlying population . There were significant differences in several patient characteristics between genders (Table 3). Notably, women surveyed were significantly more likely to report days with poor mental or physical health and limitations related to these conditions. However, self perceived health was similar in both groups.
Overall, women reported more visits than men (6.6 vs 5.8, p < 0.01), with adjusted differences (95% confidence interval (CI)) of CHC: +1.0 (-0.7, 2.7); FFS: +0.6 (-0.4, 1.5); FHN: +1.2 (0.6, 1.8); HSO: +0.8 (0.3, 1.3). We found no difference in the reported duration of the index visit between women and men.
Women attending FFS practices were significantly less likely to have received chronic disease care according to recommended guidelines. We observed a similar trend in CHCs but not in capitation based practices. We also found differences in the health promotion topics reported being discussed between women and men, and these differences varied by model. Women were more likely than men to report discussing family conflicts in CHCs and FHNs, whereas men were more likely than women to report discussing smoking in FFS and FHN consultation, and discussing exercise and alcohol consumption in all models but CHCs.
Consistent with a previous Canadian report, women reported more frequent visits to their primary care practice than men . However, self reported measures of accessibility as well as other dimensions of health service delivery were not meaningfully different in the two groups. We conclude that the delivery of primary care services is equitable across gender in all models.
The World Health Organization states that gender equity "... requires that men and women will be treated equally where they have common needs, and that their differences will be addressed in an equitable manner."  Men are more likely to smoke and abuse alcohol and illicit drugs than women, [24–26] while women are more likely to suffer from family conflicts,  suggesting that the gender differences observed are likely an appropriate response to the differential healthcare needs between sexes.
We found the smallest gender gap and best performance for women in CHCs. These results may reflect the focus on health promotion and preventive care integral to CHCs, and the substantially longer visits that would allow time for these activities.
We observed no significant gender differences in the delivery of colorectal cancer screening and hearing or visual impairment screening in any model but found that men attending FFS were significantly more likely to have been up to date on influenza immunization. Other studies had also found no gender difference in colorectal cancer screening but a higher likelihood of influenza immunization in men receiving care under the Veteran's Health Administration's services, a system that supports both the fee for service and capitation structures . Conclusions about whether gender disparities exist in preventive care is appreciably impacted by the indicators selected. Other studies, as our did, find significantly better preventive scores when conditions specific to women (breast and cervical cancer screening) are included in the overall preventive score,  likely because significant investments have been made to promote awareness and compliance for these manoeuvres.
Our results suggest that gender gaps in the quality of care received may be dependent on the model of care. Women attending FFS practices but not in capitation based models were significantly less likely to have received recommended care for chronic diseases. Because this study captured the provider's intent for processes of care, the results point to a disparate approach in the primary care providers' management of chronic diseases between men and women in FFS practices rather than, say, gender differences in patient compliance to these processes.
Studies using simulated patients with congestive heart failure found men were more likely undergo clinical investigations . Others have found men to be more likely to receive more evidence based cardiovascular preventive care for aspirin prescription, [32, 33] triple anti-anginal therapy,  beta blocker, [35, 36] and angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors [37–39]. Evidence for diabetic care is less well documented and doesn't show preferential gender treatment [40, 41].
FFS is the most common model of care in Ontario, serving nearly 60% of its population. Critics of the FFS model contend that the "per visit" fee structure encourages shorter, problem focused visits, while capitation or salary based remuneration systems should achieve better care because the provider is not penalized for additional time spent on those with greater needs. The results of this evaluation support this notion.
Our results suggest that primary care reforms have not had a negative impact on the equitable delivery of primary care across gender. In fact, capitation based practices may provide more equitable chronic disease management and influenza immunization than FFS practices.
The survey study population is limited individuals accessing care, and its results cannot be extrapolated to the general population. Because estimates of health service delivery are based on self reported measures, the patient's prior experience and expectation of care, which could plausibly differ by gender, is likely to impact their response.
The evaluation of preventive care and chronic disease management was based on the abstraction of charts. Since these contain very limited patient socio-demographic information we were unable to account for differences in these factors across gender. We also did not capture additional health information to allow us to evaluate whether gender differences in care is related to existing co-morbidities. Finally, we could not evaluate whether patient provider gender concordance is a vehicle to gender disparity.
This "within model" approach to evaluating equity has two advantages. First, it eliminates the effect of differences in the profile of the populations within a model for which one could not adjust. It also allows us to evaluate the impact of the primary care reform initiative that addresses remuneration approach on equity.
This is the first study to perform an evaluation of that scope of primary care dimensions. We found the experience of health care service delivery to be similar in women and men. The gender differences that we found in the discussion of healthy lifestyle subjects may be an appropriate and efficient response to prioritizing care in response to differential health needs given limited visit time. This study documents inequities in the delivery of chronic disease care in FFS practices but not in capitation based practices. We recommend that efforts to monitor and address gender based differences in the delivery of chronic disease management in primary care be pursued.
Funding for the original study on which this research is based was provided by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care Primary Health Care Transition Fund. The views expressed in this report are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.
This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.