Background: The inverse care law proposing that medical services are distributed inversely to population health needs, and that this law operates more completely where medical care is most exposed to market forces, was first suggested by Tudor Hart in 1971. This paper considers whether an inverse care law can be observed for the provision of informal care as well as for medical care.
Aim: Using data from the 2001 census we sought to investigate the contemporary relevance of the inverse care law.
Design of study: Cross-sectional study.
Setting: England and Wales.
Method: Data from the 2001 census for the population of England and Wales were analysed at the county, unitary, or former metropolitan authority level. The prevalence of the conjunction of general health status and limiting long-term illness was correlated with the percentage of the local population who were working as qualified healthcare workers (nurses, qualified medical practitioners, dentists, and other health professionals and therapists) and with the percentage of the population providing 50 or more hours of unpaid care per week.
Results: In 2001, 7.6% of people reported that their health was not good and that they had a limiting long-term illness (the need for care). Over one million people reported providing 50 or more hours of unpaid care per week. An inverse care law was found at the ecological level between the need for care and the proportion of the population who were working as qualified medical practitioners, dentists, and other health professionals. Informal care was almost perfectly positively correlated with the need for care (r = 0.97). These relationships were more marked for areas in the north of the country compared with the south. In the north more people provide unpaid care as more people need that care and because there are fewer working qualified medical professionals, other than nurses, providing such care per head.
Conclusions: Medical care is distributed inversely to need, whereas the provision of informal care is positively related to need — where care is most needed, informal care is most likely to be provided. The greater the market forces that are allowed to intervene in the relationships between the need for care and its provision, the more likely the inverse care law is to be found to apply. Where no market forces apply, where people give up their time for free to provide care, an almost perfectly positive care law is found to apply.