Health Indicators

Health indicators are key facts or events that give an idea of the overall level of health in a community. Usually things that can be measured are chosen as indicators (see the list below). Measurable or 'numerical' indicators make comparisons and reporting easier, and they appear more accurate. But when only measurable indicators are used, there is a danger of giving too little importance to human factors that are difficult or impossible to measure.

This is a mistake made by many programs — especially large ones. For example, the success of family planning programs is often measured by indicators like: "How many new couples are recruited each month." But such indicators ignore important human factors like: "To what extent are women pressured into accepting family planning?" or "How do people feel about programs that put more emphasis on birth control than on other aspects of health care?" Failure to consider these less measurable human indicators has resulted in some huge programs and development agencies being thrown out of countries.

In planning or evaluating community activities, it is important that health workers learn to look at the less measurable human indicators as well as the standard measurable ones.

Examples of health indicators

Here is a list of some measurable and non-measurable health indicators. Add to it from your own experience.

Commonly used MEASURABLE INDICATORS of community health

Number or percent of:

  • underweight births and infant deaths
  • deaths of children under 5, of adults, etc.
  • well nourished or poorly nourished children
  • children vaccinated
  • children per family (family size)
  • abnormal vital signs or blood work (blood pressure, blood sugar, blood cholesterol)
  • hospitalizations
  • people receiving disability benefits
  • cases of specific diseases

Less measurable, more HUMAN INDICATORS of community well-being

  • attitudes of people about themselves
  • movement toward dependency or self-reliance
  • examples of families helping each other (or fighting)
  • how community decisions are made
  • how well education relates to community needs
  • fairness or corruptness of leaders
  • extent to which leaders, health workers, researchers, and teachers serve as good role models, share their knowledge, and treat others as equals
  • social awareness; ability of the poor to express and analyze their needs


This page adapted from: David Werner & Bill Bower (1982), Helping Health Workers Learn. Berkeley: Hesperian. "Hesperian Health Guides encourages others to copy, reproduce, or adapt to meet local needs, any or all parts of this book…, provided that the parts reproduced are distributed free or at cost — not for profit."

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