February 11, 2011 – The Canadian healthcare system often feels like an incomprehensible labyrinth. Knowing how one piece fits and works with the others can be a daunting challenge. Likewise, putting quality of care into perspective is nearly impossible with some form of comparison.
It’s for these reasons that the Health Council of Canada (HCC) released A Citizen’s Guide to Health Indicators. The guide is intended for interested citizens who want to understand the “purpose, power, and pitfalls of health indicators.”
What Are Health Indicators?
Health indicators, according to the guide, “are measures of health and of the factors that affect health. They are numbers and statistics that can provide a basis for comparison.” Indicators let you measure, monitor, and compare important factors that influence health and the health care system. In using health indicators, you can compare geographic areas, populations, time-periods, or the quality of health care.
Indicators can also help you see how people’s health and their experiences with health care vary across the country and among different groups, such as older patients compared to younger ones.
The rate of CT and MRI scans is one example of an indicator, as are wait times for surgeries and incidence of common complications for various diseases. In other words, health indicators establish a baseline or range of expectations that can then be used to better understand health status and the functioning of some part of the healthcare system.
What Indicators Do
The HCC compares health indicators to the gauges on a car dashboard. In the words of the report, “data such as the engine temperature, speed, and levels of gas and oil are fed into gauges that tell you about the car’s ‘health’ and performance. The gauges show you whether things are running smoothly and alert you to possible problems. They may not show exactly what the problems are, but they let you know if you should take some action or investigate further.”
What Indicators Can and Can’t do
Health indicators can help governments and health professional better understand and respond to health issues and trends by analyze health needs in the community so they can set priorities for action and develop appropriate services. The can also help users monitor and improve the health care system by letting them compare practices. Likewise, indicators can help governments and professionals make decisions about health policies based on good evidence.
According to the report, indicators can allow patients and family members to become informed about the quality of health care and health policies. In this sense, health indicators inform health literacy. For example, using indicators can help inform you on the quality of hospitals in your area compared to others, thereby allowing you to make informed decisions about your own care.
Indicators, then, act as gauges or signposts. The HCC report notes, however, that indicators have certain limits. For one, they raise questions, but do not usually provide direct answers. By being better informed about some part of the health system, you’ll be better prepared to ask questions, even if the answers aren’t easily accessible.