Putting a number on our nation’s health

An image of children playing in a sunny meadow

The Office for National Statistics has set out to create a data set that allows us to track, understand and measure key themes to give us an overall picture of the nation’s health – just as GDP is used to understand the strength of our nation’s finances. As we publish our experimental statistics up to 2019, Greg Ceely explains the significance of this work and what our data show.

The Health Index is a collection of data which tell us about how health is changing in an area, and how the characteristics of places and people which impact health are changing too. All of this is summarised into a single statistic which allows you to track health improvements or declines over time: for the nation, for a specific region or local authority, and for specific topics within health that you’re interested in.

When we began this work, we understood that the Health Index needed to be broad in its concept of health, by not only including health outcomes but also factors that are known to contribute to health such as air pollution, both on an individual and community level.

It aims to make health easier for people to consider as a national asset which can go up or down, and improve decision making in government policy, both at local and national levels.

After publishing a trial Heath Index back in December 2020, along with a public consultation to gather feedback, we’re now ready to share the results of England’s official Health Index. This data covers the years 2015-2019, before the onset of the pandemic.

The findings

The Health Index tells us how the health of the nation has changed since 2015. It doesn’t tell us whether our health was good or bad in 2015; but we do see from these latest results that by 2019 it hadn’t really changed.

At a national level, our health was not improving year on year: we weren’t reducing air pollution, we weren’t reducing personal crime (such as sexual offences, robbery and criminal damage), we weren’t eating more healthily. In general, we don’t expect the Health Index to show us much change year on year because improvements take time to become apparent – but what these results do show is the health of the nation in the calm before the storm.

What impact will the pandemic have on these scores? As COVID-19 and the efforts to prevent its spread emerged, we have seen increased avoidable mortality rates, less access to exercise facilities, and other changes to our health. The lack of improvement in health up to 2019 will likely be dwarfed by what we might see in the 2020 data.

Health looked different for every local authority before 2020, and you can explore these results for your own area here.

Future work

We’ll add 2020 results to the Health Index later this year, and it will be fascinating to see what impact the pandemic and the restrictions we all faced have on these scores.

Between those annual publications, there will be shorter articles exploring specific aspects of health using the Index, and demonstrating how others are using it to learn about health as a whole.

If you want to understand health at an even more local level, Northumbria NHS Trust are testing their local data within the Health Index framework of topics. This project, being published next month, aims to understand how health differs between areas within local authorities, and demonstrate how other local organisations could do similar analysis.

The ONS is also developing a projection tool to illustrate how changing one aspect of health within the Health Index might have an impact on other parts of health in the future.

If you have any feedback on the Health Index, email health.data@ons.gov.uk.

Profile image Greg Ceely

Greg Ceely is
Head of Health Index and Projections at the ONS