Beyond a boundary – conceptualising and measuring multiple health conditions in the Scottish population
Bromley, Catherine Maria-Luisa Sarah
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The concurrent experience of multiple health conditions (often termed multimorbidity) has become an important issue in recent years. Most research on this topic uses clinical data (e.g. GP or hospital records) that lack important socio-contextual information about the lives of people with multiple conditions. Population health surveys can help to overcome these limitations, but identifying people who have multiple conditions is problematic. Decisions need to be taken regarding what is meant by a condition, which ones should be included, and how multiple should be defined. These decisions tend to be based on what data are available, rather than on any universal inclusion criteria or theoretical underpinnings. This thesis used an approach informed by sociological theory and principles drawn from critical realist philosophy to estimate the prevalence of multiple conditions among adults (16+) in the general population, using data from the 1998 and 2008- 2011 Scottish Health Surveys. It explicitly acknowledged the multiple, contested and constructed nature of health, illness and diagnosis; the limits of empirical enquiry; and the need to approach concepts such as multiple conditions critically. To support the decision-making process, longitudinal analyses of mortality were used to examine the impact of including various contested conditions on people’s long-term chance of survival (if there was no evidence of impact then the definition was rejected). The final measure of multiple conditions arrived at suggested that 24.9% of adults had multiple conditions (compared with 17.2% using the survey’s original, unadjusted, measure). This measure was then used to explore how this status related to people’s wellbeing, which helped to highlight importance differences in experiences. Among adults with multiple conditions, 33.5% of those in the most deprived areas had low wellbeing compared with 13.5% of those in the least deprived areas. Low wellbeing was also higher among people with multiple conditions aged under 65 than those aged 65 and over, especially for those living in areas of high deprivation. There was some evidence that having multiple conditions and additional vulnerabilities (e.g. psychological distress, living in a deprived area, having activity limitations) before the age of 55 increased people’s risk of mortality, which might result in older populations appearing to have better wellbeing due to less healthy people not reaching old age. Working-age people with multiple conditions were also more likely than people of the same age with no conditions to be economically inactive, to not live in an owner-occupied property, and not have a co-resident partner. All of which suggest that poor health at younger ages limits access to the social and economic norms enjoyed by most people. The approach adopted arguably helped to avoid over-classifying largely healthy people as having multiple conditions, while still ensuring that people’s own perspectives on their health were not under-privileged with respect to more traditional biomedically-focused approaches. However, it was also clear that the experiences of adults with multiple conditions are highly varied, and in particular, socially stratified. This heterogeneity has implications for research in this field, as well as clinical practice and public health policy. Recommendations for better reflecting this diversity in future studies included collecting more measures of functional capacity, aspirations, illness experiences, and social stressors (such as financial insecurity).