A critical examination of summary measures of population health

Bull World Health Organ. 2000;78(8):981-94.


In the past decade, interest has been rising in the development, calculation and use of summary measures of population health, which combine information on mortality and non-fatal health outcomes. This paper reviews the issues and challenges in the design and application of summary measures and presents a framework for evaluating different alternatives. Summary measures have a variety of uses, including comparisons of health in different populations and assessments of the relative contributions of different diseases, injuries and risk factors to the total disease burden in a population. Summary measures may be divided into two broad families: health expectancies and health gaps. Within each family, there are many different possible measures, but they share a number of inputs, including information on mortality, non-fatal health outcomes, and health state valuations. Other critical points include calculation methods and a range of conceptual and methodological issues regarding the definition, measurement and valuation of health states. This paper considers a set of basic criteria and desirable properties that may lead to rejection of certain summary measures and the development of new ones. Despite the extensive developmental agenda that remains, applications of summary measures cannot await the final resolution of all methodological issues, so they should focus on those measures that satisfy as many basic criteria and desirable properties as possible.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Data Interpretation, Statistical*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Female
  • Health Care Costs
  • Health Status Indicators*
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Population Surveillance
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • World Health Organization