Getting to Know Health Indicators Indicators are a part of everyday life.
In your car, indicators like the check engine light and temperature gauge alert you to potential
issues with the engine. In your home, the battery icon on your cellphone
or tablet gives you an idea of how much power and time you have left.
For a country, indicators like unemployment rates, the gross domestic product, and the
consumer price index shed light on the state of the economy.
While others tell you things about the people living there, like rates of homelessness,
education, literacy or income. Getting the picture?
In the health sector, indicators can tell you about the quality and effectiveness of
various interventions or treatments. They can tell you about health outcomes, quality
of care, and even how well public money is being spent.
But what exactly is an indicator? An indicator acts like a flag that draws your
attention to something that’s going on and makes you ask questions.
Questions like… • What does this number mean?
• Why did we get this result? • When we look at trends, are we getting
better over time? • Are we providing the right care?
• How are we doing compared to benchmarks, peers or others?
An indicator provides a standard way of measuring and comparing a problem or area of focus.
This standard and comparable information helps you understand how well you’re doing and
where you could improve. At CIHI, we’re in the business of developing,
calculating and reporting on health indicators. Things like: health status, mortality rates,
returns to hospital, the cost of a standard hospital stay, rates of pressure ulcers in
long-term care, wait times, and rates for specific procedures like hip replacements.
These indicators are expressed in quantitative terms and help you measure things like safety,
quality and appropriateness of care, and efficiency — and to give you a basis for comparisons.
So health indicators are vital tools to help anyone who monitors and manages the health
of a population and how services are being used.
They help staff at all levels of our health systems understand performance at a pan-Canadian,
regional, organizational, and even a program level.
And in fact, there are different kinds of indicators for different kinds of audiences.
Let’s look at a few examples. Hospitals use the Hospital Deaths — or HSMR
— indicator to measure and monitor the quality of care they’re providing.
Staff in long-term care facilities use the Potentially Inappropriate Use of Antipsychotics
in Long-Term Care indicator to identify areas for improvement and to evaluate performance
improvement initiatives. And the Smoking indicator, which measures
the percentage of people in a specific population who smoke, helps regions determine the effectiveness
of their smoking cessation initiatives. It’s also important to understand that different
health indicators are calculated in different ways, depending on their purpose and intent.
Some are simple, while others require more sophisticated analysis. Some tell you about
proportions; others are standardized or risk-adjusted rates.
But all good indicators are based on a specific set of standard criteria, so that they measure
what they claim to measure, and allow you to compare results in a way that lets you
know you’re comparing apples to apples. A single indicator can’t give you the whole
story. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. In other words, health indicators don’t
provide solutions; rather they give clues to what’s behind the performance. So they’re
really just a starting point for further investigation. But they’re a great tool for providing high-level
comparative information on key issues. So you should really look at a variety of
indicators that work together to get a bigger picture about health system performance, and
to support quality improvement and accountability. Now that you know a bit more about health
indicators and the value they provide to stakeholders at all levels of our health systems, why not
put them to work for you? Visit CIHI’s website and learn more about the indicators, data
and tools we provide to help support better decisions that lead to healthier Canadians.