Geographic Variations in Health Care

What Do We Know and What Can Be Done to Improve Health System Performance?

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Variations in health care use within a country are complicated. In some cases they may reflect differences in health needs, in patient preferences or in the diffusion of a therapeutic innovation; in others they may not. There is evidence that some of the observed variations are unwarranted, signalling under- or over-provision of health services, or both. This study documents geographic variations for high-cost and high-volume procedures in select OECD countries. It finds that there are wide variations not only across countries, but within them as well. A mix of patient preferences and physician practice styles likely play an important part in this, but what part of the observed variations reflects over-provision, or whether there are unmet needs, remain largely unexplained. This report helps policy makers better understand the issues and challenges around geographic variations in health care provision and considers the policy options.



Executive summary

Geographic variations in health care use across and within countries have been widely documented, for a limited number of countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Nordic countries. While some of these variations reflect differences in patient needs and/or preferences, others do not. Instead, they are due to variations in medical practice styles, the ability of providers to generate demand beyond what is clinically necessary, or to unequal access to health care services. These unwarranted variations raise concerns about the equity and the efficiency of health systems.


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