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New methods to study health inequalities require investments in data infrastructures, European academies report says

A new generation of scientific methods are helping to better understand health inequalities in Europe, but investments in data infrastructures are required to make use of its full potential for informing policymaking, European academies say in a new report.

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck disadvantaged groups in society much more severely than others. As a result, the health gap between socio-economic groups has widened, exacerbating inequalities long known to researchers. A better understanding of these inequalities is therefore more important than ever.

In the Health Inequalities Research: New methods, better insights? report, published today (15 November), experts from the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) and the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) evaluate scientific methods to study health inequalities with the aim of helping to narrow the health gap across Europe.

“In many European countries, differences in average life expectancy at birth between people with a lower and a higher level of education, occupation, or income amount to between 5 and more than 10 years, and differences in healthy life expectancy often amount to even more than 15 years”, the document says.

Issues in the field of health inequalities are not new to policymakers and have, over the past four decades, been studied extensively by researchers from various disciplines. However, there is still substantial uncertainty about several important issues, such as the extent to which socioeconomic disadvantage causally affects health, and the effectiveness of interventions to reduce health inequalities.

In the newly published report, experts on the scientific committee, chaired by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), conclude that a range of new analytic methods are a “valuable addition to health inequalities researchers’ tool-box” and should be used as a complement to conventional research methods to resolve these issues and reduce the uncertainties.

Examples of such new methods include “counterfactual” approaches to assess the causal effect of socio-economic conditions on health, and “natural experiments” to evaluate the effect of interventions on health inequalities.

Research using these new methods can play an important role in informing policies to narrow the health gap but requires investments in data infrastructures which allow these methods to be applied, the experts highlight.

The experts therefore call on the European Commission and on national governments to support research on health inequalities, including research that takes advantage of variation in socioeconomic conditions, health outcomes and policies between European countries.

Final conference “Health inequalities: new methods, better insights?” on 8 December

The debate on health inequalities research methods began in 2018 and had as its starting point a discussion paper prepared by the ALLEA-FEAM interdisciplinary scientific committee. Under the chairmanship of Johan Mackenbach of the KNAW, the experts on the committee developed this work further over the last few years and as a result, produced the report.

The official presentation of the Health Inequalities Research: New methods, better insights? report will take place at a symposium to be held on 8 December 2021, 13:30 – 17:30 CET. The event, hosted by KNAW, will be organised in Amsterdam in a hybrid format.

Under the theme How can new research methods help address COVID-related health inequalities?, researchers and policymakers will discuss how to capitalise on new research methods in the field of health inequalities.


Chair:  Johannes Siegrist (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf and committee member)

13:30   Opening on behalf of the KNAW (Sjaak Neefjes, Leiden University Medical Center and KNAW board member)

13:45   Understanding health inequalities: the usefulness of an expanded toolbox (Johan Mackenbach, Erasmus MC and chair of the committee)

14:15   Known unknowns in the field of health inequalities: priorities for research (Ana Diez Roux, Drexel University)

14:35   Solutions for health inequalities: reflections on the interface between science and policy (Margaret Whitehead, University of Liverpool, committee member)

14:55   Discussion

15:15   Tea break

15:30   COVID-19: an unequal pandemic (Clare Bambra, Newcastle University, committee member)

15:50   COVID-19 policies and health inequalities (Thierry Lang, University of Toulouse)

16:10   Causal thinking in a pandemic: tools to understand COVID-19 inequalities and policy responses (Maria Glymour, University of California San Francisco)

16:30   Panel discussion

17:15   Closing remarks by ALLEA and FEAM

Join the event: https://www.lyyti.fi/reg/final_conference_health_inequalities

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