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In matters of health, some inequalities are inevitable: your average 80-year-old will likely be less in the pink than his sprightly grandchild. A health inequality becomes avoidable, however, when its cause is not natural but societal, finding its roots in a social disadvantage rather than some inherent weakness.
"The problem of social health inequalities arises when social stratification and privileged status become the basis for better health and longer life expectancy," explains Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, who joined McGill's Departments of Sociology and Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health last fall. "Those with more education or money end up in better health. But fortunately, we can minimize those inequities with public policies."
Quesnel-Vallée has launched a comparative five-year investigation on the relationship between social inequalities in health and private insurance in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany.
"I'm hoping to find which policies are better for individual health and create less social inequality," says Quesnel- Vallée. "The prevailing wisdom is that health insurance does not contribute to health inequality but I think this is one instance where statistics do more to conceal than to reveal." She hopes to apply her findings towards revised public policies that ensure Canada's healthcare system is truly universal.
Though this project is international, the recent Federal Supreme Court decision stating that Quebec's ban on private health insurance violated individual rights convinced the Quebec-born Quesnel-Vallée to examine her province's approach to healthcare in greater detail. She has teamed up with professors Abby Lippman, Lee Soderstrom and Antonia Maioni to analyze a range of issues - from gender inequalities to population aging - that correlate to increased private insurance in Quebec.
Quesnel-Vallée finds her local initiatives extremely rewarding. Recently, she took part in a public colloquium in which academics set the record straight on health care issues that are often dramatized by the media. The impetus for this meeting was the need to inform the public on the current health care reform proposed by the Charest government.
"It was so great to see 200 to 300 people take time out of their weekends to get informed about their health care system," she says. "That's when you know your work is really bringing something back to the community."
Quesnel-Vallée hopes to be presenting the results of her latest research on population aging and private health insurance at the Quebec National Assembly's Commission des affaires sociales, where the Charest government's response to the federal Supreme Court - and the associated health care reform - will be debated. Her recommendations will not only inform policy-making at the provincial and federal levels, but also promote the truly Canadian principle that universal health insurance is a basic right.