Health Statistics

General Guide




Cardiovascular &

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Digestive Health

Environmental / Occupational Health

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Rare Diseases &

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Before starting a search for health statistics, it is helpful to understand how health and medical data is collected and what types of data are most commonly available.

Table of Contents

What are health statistics?

Top 5 challenges to finding data
A note on international data
Other statistical resources by subject at the UC Library
Glossary of Statistical Terms

What are health statistics?

Health and medical statistics incorporate a variety of data types. The most common statistics reported are vital (birth, death, marriage, divorce rates), morbidity (incidence of disease in a population) and mortality (the number of people who die of a certain disease compared with the total number of people). Other common statistical data reported are health care costs, the demographic distribution of disease based on geographic, ethnic, and gender variables, and data on the socioeconomic status and education of health care professionals.

Challenges to finding data

Seekers of health and medical statistics should be aware of the following challenges in their quest for data.

First, it is important to know that data collection in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon. For example, it was not until 1956 that Congress enacted legislation to establish the US National Health Survey in order to collect statistics on disease, injury, impairment, disability, and other health related topics. Locating historical data (pre 1956) will be more time consuming and consultation with primary resources will be necessary unless an analysis has already been published on your topic.

Second, data collection is decentralized. Numerous federal, state and local agencies in additional to not-for-profit organizations are involved in the collection and dissemination of health related data. As a result, there may be little to no data in some areas and duplication of data in others. There may also be variations between how data is collected and described between these various agencies. For example, differences in time periods covered, geographic areas, and sample sizes used to tabulate the data will differ. In addition, pay special attention to the definitions and coverage used by each reporting agency as the terminology used may have different meanings. It is difficult to obtain a precise figure when it comes to national samples. In most cases the numbers reported are estimates. Also, reporting standards and definitions change over time. If your figures seem higher or lower than expected, check to see if this change reflects actual trends or if the definition or reporting of your figure has changed. Finally, you may also see slight variations in the numbers reported between different agencies. Check to see whether the figures reported are compiled independently, or if they were taken from other sources. For example, commercial publishers often repackage government compiled data. In most cases, the secondary reporting source has accurately reproduced the original data and conclusions, but when in doubt, track down the original report.

Third, data collection on a national level takes money and staff to compile. Only the federal government or a large organization has the resources to organize and manage large-scale data collection efforts. Finding data will be easier if you know who is responsible for collecting data in the area you are studying and the type of data they collect and publish. Government agencies collect data as part of a federal mandate; private organizations expend resources as part of their organizational mission or in response to the needs of the organization's membership. In either case the collecting agency has predetermined the need and collection scope for data in a specific area. It is possible that that data you are looking for has not been collected, or it has not been analyzed in the manner in which you need. You may need to obtain the original data and perform your own analysis. This will be easier if the data was gathered by a government agency, in which case the data may be available upon request, in a library, or for purchase. However, if the data was originally compiled by a private organization, it may not be possible to obtain the original data sets.

Fourth, data collection and analysis at a national level takes time to compile. Rarely will you find "real time" data except for estimates. Most statistics are out of date to some degree by the time they are published. Just because a report is published in 2000 does not mean the data is from the most recent few years. Current health data is often based on extrapolations of older data, such as U.S. Census data, compiled every ten years, or on smaller sample sizes. Again, check to see when and how the data was collected. In most cases you will probably see at least a 3-5 year time lag between data collection and a published report.

Fifth, and compounding the difficulty of locating data at the national or international level, there is a lack of adequate subject access through indexing sources (i.e. Medline). Most health data is compiled and distributed by the federal government. It is notoriously difficult to track down government resources since federal reports etc. are as not well indexed. When possible, see if the reporting agency has the statistics you need. If not, then you will need to search the journal literature in a bibliographic database like MEDLINE or It may be difficult to always determine what type of statistical data is available from a citation or abstract. When in doubt, read the article to make sure that you are not missing potential data.

International Data

Locating international health statistics is usually more problematic than locating U.S. data. Resources, particularly in developing countries, may not be available to collect data as extensively or comprehensively as in the United States. Data collecting efforts therefore vary considerably around the world and comparative data may not be available. The World Health Organization and the United Nations are two international agencies whose mission and budget allow for international data collecting. Consult the publications of these agencies first when seeking health and medical statistics. See the Library's International Health Research Guide for additional help locating these elusive statistics.

Other statistical resources by subject at the UC Library

Education Statistics
Mathematical Statistics
Economic Data

Need statistical software or actual data?
For access to SAS, SPSS, Stata, etc., contact:
Social Science Research Computing
1155 East 60th Street
Room 049
Chicago, IL 60637
Voice: 773-702-0793
Fax: 773-702-2101

If you have any questions about resources or services available to the biomedical sciences community please contact Deb Werner, Biomedical Reference Librarian or Christa Modschiedler, Biomedical Bibliographer & Reference Librarian. You may also email the Crerar Reference Staff.

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