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Health Data and Statistics

Finding and Using Health Statistics: A Self-Study Course

The National Information Center on Health Services Research and Health Care Technology (NICHSR) offers an extensive web tutorial that explains how health statistics are compiled and where to find different types of statistical information. 

Guidelines for Finding Resources

Identifying relevant health-related statistics can be a challenge. Statistics are kept by groups as diverse as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Energy, and Counting California. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of the information available, there is no single way to start looking. Here are several points to consider when doing your search:

Is there a government or private agency that would care about your statistic? All levels of government, from the United Nations down to individual cities, produce statistics in the course of fulfilling their individual missions. Often these statistics are then made available either in print form or on the Internet. Many private organizations also offer public access to information they collect. Identify an appropriate agency, then search their web site and print publications, or contact the agency directly.
Do you need very current or historical statistics? Most organizations need one to three years to compile statistics before they are published. When looking for more current information, check in recent journals, newspapers, and press releases. While many statistics are available online, most data prior to 1960 exists only in print format. Reports that compare data from different years may also be available.
What type of statistics do you need? (Vital, demographic, health, etc.) Different types of statistics are offered by different sources and organizations. Some examples of statistic types relevant to biomedical study include:
  • Vital statistics are records of births, marriages, divorces, and deaths
  • Demographics describe a specific population group, often defined by geographic region
  • Health statistics, also called mortality and/or morbidity statistics, detail the incidence of certain diseases and conditions. (This information may also be found both in vital statistics and in mortality and morbidity reports.)
What level of statistics do you need? Resources often differ greatly from the national or international level to the local level. To find relevant data, choose an organization close to the area of interest. E.g., regarding the incidence of an illness in Los Angeles, thry the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. The Centers for Disease Control would offer incidence of an illness at the national level, and the World Health Organization at the international level.

Using Statistics

Even with relevant statistics, some analysis and interpretation is required. To better understand statistics in context, consider the following guidelines. In order to get complete information on the methods used in compiling statistics, it is often necessary to go to the original source, rather than using information quoted elsewhere.

Reliability of Source Identify the individual or organization who has gathered the data and their intended purpose, especially when using international statistics. Finding the methods used to gather and report data can also help in judging reliability. Differences in methodology should also be taken into account when comparing data from multiple sources.
Time Since statistics measure variables that constantly change, it is important to know what time period statistical reports cover. Some resources offer up-to-the-minute statistics, while others report results of long-term, ongoing studies. Check carefully to see what dates are covered in statistics; e.g., does the report cover the calendar year or the fiscal year?
Geographic Location Statistics gathered across geographical regions allow for comparison between different areas. When using US statistics, note whether they are at the census tract or zip code level. These areas rarely match up exactly, making it extremely difficult to relate data gathered in one way to data gathered in another.
Population Specific population categories may be based on gender, age, race, and other demographic factors. E.g, UNICEF reports statistics on women and children. Look for definitions of what populations the statistics refer to; for example, the age definition of an "adult" may differ between studies.