23RD WONCA Europe Conference

Sara Willems

First Belgian Professor in the field of equity in healthcare, 
Head of Equity in Health Care research group leading 
numerous research projects on equity in primary care


Are we all equal? Social differences in health and health care in Europe.

People are not born equal. There are large differences in health between European countries. For example life expectancy at birth varies within Europe by 8 years for females and 14 years for males. But also within countries inequalities in health between social groups still persist and are even growing in some European countries. Social inequalities in health are due to a disparity in the conditions in which people live and work, and in drivers such as income, unemployment levels and levels of education. The impact on health of these variables starts at a young age and even before birth, and persists throughout life. Health inequalities are not only unfair, they also have a huge economic and social cost. Health care can play an important role in reducing health inequities when being organized in an equitable way. Yet, large variations in the availability, access to and quality of healthcare for people from different social groups can be observed across Europe. Also in primary care. In November 2017 the European Association for Quality and Patient Safety in Primary care (EQuiP), one of WONCA’s networks, launched a position paper on equity in primary care. With this paper EQuiP stresses the importance of equity as a prerequisite of high quality primary care. This presentation will focus on the inequities in health and health care in Europe, and on what is needed to tackle the social injustice of health inequity. The presentation will build on the most recent evidence on equity in health and health care in Europe and on the The EQuiP Equity position paper.


Sara J.T. Willems, MA Health Promotion, PhD Medical Sciences (°1977, Ghent) is associate professor at the Department of Family Medicine and Primary Health Care at Ghent University, Belgium. In October 2011 she became the first Belgian professor in the field of equity in healthcare. She leads the Equity in Health Care research group, an interdisciplinary research group leading or partnering in numerous national and international research projects on equity in primary care. Her work examines the relation between health care organisation and equity in access to care, treatment and outcomes of care. Her research interests include also equity as a dimension of quality in primary care; person and people centred care; community oriented primary care; health care for Roma; and social accountability of medical programs. Sara Willems is often consulted by international, federal and local organizations and authorities on equity in health care. Recently, she was external expert member of the European Commission's Expert Panel on Effective Ways of Investing in Health for the report on access to health care; and of the Institute of Medicine (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) for the report on educating health professionals to address the social determinants of health. She is also involved in the developments on health equity in her local context and contributes to the design and implementation of community health projects in the area of Ghent. Sara Willems published her work in over 40 scientific papers published in international journals with peer-review and indexed in Web of Science, several scientific papers published in other international and Belgian journals and 17 chapters in books. She authored numerous policy reports on the organization of health care for deprived population groups, and is consulted regularly on the topic of equity for newspaper articles and publications for laity. (for an up-to-date publication list: https://biblio.ugent.be/) She (co-)supervised eleven PhDs (7 finished and 4 in process) in the field of equity in health care and/or the organisation of primary health care. Sara Willems is involved in the development and the implementation of the educational track "health equity" in the medical program at Ghent University. She is lecturer of the courses Health & Society (medical sociology) and Community Oriented Primary Care in several master programs at Ghent University. She is chief executive officer of "WGC Watersportbaan", a community health centre in one of the deprived areas in Ghent.


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