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Getting Started with Health Statistics

Finding and Using Health Statistics

This online tutorial from the National Library of Medicine is a great place to get started to learn about health data and statistics.

Types of Health Data

Health data are gathered from a number of different types of sources. The source, collection methodology, purpose of collection, and limitations should be considered when evaluating and using data and statistics. 

Population surveys

Population or household surveys are a main source of health data. One advantage is that they are not limited to users of health services as are some of the other types of sources listed below. See the box below for the most important household surveys in the United States. 

Surveys of providers

Surveys of physicians, hospitals and nursing homes can be an important source of information on medical transactions and patients.

Vital statistics

These are drawn from the records of births, deaths, marriages and divorces and can facilitate detailed analyses of particular conditions, given that cause of death and circumstances of birth are also recorded.

Registers of diseases

These show the incidence, prevalence and outcomes of diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Administrative records

Examples include those records compiled during a hospital stay or at outpatient clinics or physician’s offices.

About this Guide

This guide provides links to sources of data and statistics collected and provided by numerous organizations and agencies. It also contains open-source peer reviewed sources and platforms useful for your course on public health research and epidemiology focusing on Native American/Alaska Native communities. There are also several new AI tools and a link to an index of AI platforms related to research and healthcare. 

Health data and statistics can be difficult to find. Some of the things that make this so challenging are:

  • Health data collection is decentralized, and carried out by many different government, non-governmental and private agencies and organizations.  This will include organizations working at the national, state and local levels.  Data quality, collection methodology and accessibility will vary considerably.
  • Data collection and dissemination takes time and resources.  There is often a lag time between collection and availability, and thus real-time data can be difficult to come by.
  • Collection of health data in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Thus, finding reliable data prior to 1956, when the National Health Survey was established, will take time and may involve consulting primary resources.  You can also search the scholarly literature to find any studies that may have already done this ground work for you. 

Reference: Health Statistics Guide, The University of Chicago Library.

Sources of Health Data and Statistics

These are some of the most important players in the collection of health data in the United States and worldwide. You'll find links to more specific topic-oriented resources provided by these organizations amongst the various topic pages in this guide.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS)
DHHS is the umbrella agency under which most national health data and statistics programs operate. These include the CDC, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), among others.

Centers for Diseases Control (CDC)
The CDC is a part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and is the primary federal agency for public health.

  • Data and Statistics: This is the starting point for health statistics from the CDC. Browse by topic, view publications, and links to interactive tools, surveys and more.
  • National Survey of Family Growth gathers information on pregnancy, births, marriage and other useful metrics.
  • CDC Wonder: A portal to several CDC databases concerning health-related topics for public health information and numerical data sets such as AIDS/STDs, risk behaviors (the Behavioral Risk Surveillance System), mortality and natality statistics.

National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)
The NCHS is the nation's principal health statistics agency. It is a unit of the CDC. The NCHS homepage is also a central point for health statistics browseable by topic, links to surveys, publications, and other online tools.

World Health Organization (WHO)
The World Health Organization is an agency of the United Nations and is an international coordinating agency for public health.

Useful WHO databases for data and statistics include the Global Health Observatory (providing national statistics for health indicators), Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health & Ageing .

Household Surveys of Health

As mentioned above, population or household surveys collect data from people living in households, regardless of their use of health care services.  Household surveys do not generally survey institutionalized populations such as incarcerated people or patients in long-term care facilities.

The most significant household health surveys are:

National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)
The NHIS has been conducted since 1957 by the National Center for health statistics [NCHS] and its predecessor agency. The survey collects data from a large representative sample of households in the United States. NHIS is “the principal source of information on the health of the civilian non-institutionalized population of the United States.” It includes data on health status, care, demography and behaviors.

Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS)
The BRFSS consists of a series of state based household surveys conducted by state health departments with technical assistance and support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)
The NSDUH is conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA]. The survey tracks substance abuse and mental health of the non-institutionalized population of the United States.

Note: Information in this guide is adapted from Cornell University Library

Data vs. Statistics

"Data" and "Statistics" are two words that we tend to use interchangeably and yet they refer to 2 very different things.  Data is the raw information from which statistics are created.  Statistics, in turn, provide a summary of data.