The Health Index 2021 – Taking a deep dive into the nation’s health

What are the trends in health where you live? Are factors such as mental health and economic and working conditions improving? And what is the national picture telling us about health? The ONS’ Health Index for England shines a light on these questions. Greg Ceely discusses the value of this rich dataset and looks ahead to its next publication.   

The Health Index helps us to measure health in its broadest terms and to understand how it might be changing over time. It tracks health in clinical terms (i.e., the prevalence of certain conditions), but also looks at the wider social, economic and environmental drivers of health, such as crime, unemployment and pollution, together with personal circumstances including obesity, hypertension and drug misuse. 

Within each of its three main categories (Healthy People, Healthy Lives and Healthy Places), there are 14 domains, comprising 56 indicators, themselves made up of 70 different components. Put this all together and we can build a really detailed understanding of health!  

Scores on the doors 

Just as GDP puts a number on the strength of our economy, the Health Index works by giving a ‘score’ to each category and element of health. The scores are available at national, regional, local authority and Integrated Care System levels. Our interactive tool means that users can find the statistics most meaningful to them by searching the scores for their area, unlocking a treasure trove of local health insight across a broad spectrum of health data.  

What has the Health Index already shown us?  

Last November we published the Health Index for England 2020, which was our first instalment revealing health scores impacted by the pandemic. At the onset of the pandemic, the data showed overall health in England declined, which was not a surprise. The Healthy People score declined considerably, driven by worse personal well-being levels, higher mortality, and worse mental health. The Healthy Lives score declined, but within this there was an improvement in healthy eating. The Healthy Places score improved in 2020, driven by reductions in crime and improvements in living conditions such as lowered air pollution.   

What will we learn from the next Health Index?  

The Health Index for England 2015 to 2021 will give us further insight into the ways in which we were impacted by the pandemic and whether the changes we saw the previous year were temporary or more lasting. Some health contributors such as air pollution and road safety saw improvement in 2020; this new data will tell us if these positives were sustained. Alongside this, we will be able to track what progress was made in the parts of our health which declined in 2020, and how this differs from area to area. 

More work to do!  

Using expert and user feedback, we are continuing to make improvements to the Health Index. We are developing our methodology to allow the Health Index to be timelier with shorter intervals between releases. We are also closely monitoring the data sets that make up the Health Index to ensure we are tracking the most important things. We have supported our colleagues in the Alan Turing Institute to critically assess the Health Index’s methods, and will be exploring all alternative approaches suggested in their review. 

We know the Health Index has already proved a valuable tool for those who work in local healthcare planning and provision, allowing them to shine a light on their community’s needs. We will continue to improve and develop this, establishing the Health Index as a trusted source of health data.  

Greg Ceely is Health Analysis and Pandemic Insight

Greg Ceely is from the Health Analysis and Pandemic Insight team at the ONS