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Measuring potential spatial access to primary health care physicians using a modified gravity model

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Ensuring equity of access to primary health care (PHC) across Canada is a continuing challenge, especially in rural and remote regions. Despite considerable attention recently by the World Health Organization, Health Canada and other health policy bodies, there has been no nation-wide study of potential (versus realized) spatial access to PHC. This knowledge gap is partly attributable to the difficulty of conducting the analysis required to accurately measure and represent spatial access to PHC. The traditional epidemiological method uses a simple ratio of PHC physicians to the denominator population to measure geographical access. We argue, however, that this measure fails to capture relative access. For instance, a person who lives 90 minutes from the nearest PHC physician is unlikely to be as well cared for as the individual who lives more proximate and potentially has a range of choice with respect to PHC providers. In this article, we discuss spatial analytical techniques to measure potential spatial access. We consider the relative merits of kernel density estimation and a gravity model. Ultimately, a modified version of the gravity model is developed for this article and used to calculate potential spatial access to PHC physicians in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. This model incorporates a distance decay function that better represents relative spatial access to PHC. The results of the modified gravity model demonstrate greater nuance with respect to potential access scores. While variability in access to PHC physicians across the test province of Nova Scotia is evident, the gravity model better accounts for real access by assuming that people can travel across artificial census boundaries. We argue that this is an important innovation in measuring potential spatial access to PHC physicians in Canada. It contributes more broadly to assessing the success of policy mandates to enhance the equitability of PHC provisioning in Canadian provinces.

Keywords: Services de soins primaires; accessibilité spatiale; estimation par noyau de la densité; gravity model; kernel density estimation; modèles gravitationnels; primary health care; rural and remote health; santé rurale et éloignée; spatial access

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada BC V5A 1S6 ( ), Email: 2: Department of Mathematics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada BC V6T 1Z2 ( ), Email: 3: Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada BC V5A 1S6 ( ), Email:

Publication date: 2010-03-01

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