Good health supports Australians to live fulfilling lives and engage and participate in their community, education and/or employment (Department of Health 2021).

This page provides an overview of health including health determinants, health inequalities and the role the health system plays in supporting health. It also covers information on how we measure health – to help us know if Australians are in good health overall and how that is changing over time – and the importance of timely and reliable health data in Australia.

What is health?

Health can be viewed as the presence or absence of disease or medically measured risk factors in an individual. However, more broadly, health is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO 1946). For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) people and other diverse communities, health also includes cultural wellbeing (Department of Health 2021). For more information, see Health and wellbeing of First Nations people and Culturally and linguistically diverse Australians.

For information about how health, welfare and wellbeing are related, see Health and welfare links.

Understanding illness and injury

People may experience ill health (morbidity) as a disease/disorder or injury. There are many diseases that can afflict the human body, ranging from colds to cancers. The 2 main categories of disease are infectious (communicable or not) and chronic, and some diseases are both, such as HIV (see glossary). People may experience 2 or more chronic conditions at the same time, referred to as multimorbidity (see glossary). Injury, on the other hand, refers to harm or damage to the body. An injury may be unintentional (such as an accidental fall) or intentional.

For information on the leading causes of ill health in Australia, see the Australia’s health topic summary domain: Health status. Analysis of chronic health conditions are explored in the Australia’s health 2024: data insights article The ongoing challenge of chronic conditions in Australia.

Understanding how many people die in a given time period and what caused their death (mortality) is also very useful for understanding health. Patterns and trends in deaths can help explain differences and changes in the health of a population. For more information, see Life expectancy and causes of death.

What influences health?

There is a close relationship between people’s health and the circumstances in which they grow, live, work, play and age (Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2008). Health is influenced by a wide range of factors including general socioeconomic and environmental conditions; cultural factors; living and working conditions; social and community networks; and health behaviours and biological factors. These many factors interact to influence the health and health outcomes of individuals and communities. Also known as ‘health determinants’, they may be risk or a protective factors (see glossary). Preventing risk factors and improving protective factors can help support people to lead healthy lives (Department of Health 2021).

Some determinants of health relate to broad features of society and the environment (such as the natural environment and the built environment) while others relate to a person’s health behaviours (such as tobacco and e-cigarette use, physical activity), psychosocial factors (such as stress and trauma) and own bodily state (including biomedical risk factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol). Socioeconomic characteristics can also influence health, such as income, employment, education, housing, social connections and support (see Australia’s welfare and Social determinants of health). The link between a health determinant and a health outcome varies and the impact may not be direct. The pathways between determinants and health outcomes are complex and many are inter-related.

For more information and to view AIHW’s framework for determinants of health, see What are determinants of health? For the latest data and analysis on these factors, see the Australia’s health topic summary domain: Determinants of health.

How does the health system support our health?

Australia’s health system supports people’s health by providing programs, services and initiatives which aim to prevent and treat disease and illness and maintain health. A functioning health system provides safe, effective, accessible and appropriate treatment and other services to help people to remain as healthy as possible, for as long as possible. The health system facilitates this by providing services including primary care (such as general practice and allied health services), specialist services and hospital care. Health promotion and health protection (including immunisation and vaccination and screening services) is a crucial part of the system that supports people’s health. So too are diagnostic services. Medicines contribute to our health and quality of life by preventing and treating disease and illness.

Access to services and treatment are often subsidised through Medicare and provided by an extensive health workforce covering many occupations. The provision of care by the health system is supported by standards and safeguards (for example the Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights) and guided by research and policy.

For a summary of health-system services available and who is responsible for them, see Health system overview. For more information on how Australia’s health system works, who funds it, the key services provided and the composition of the workforce that delivers it, see the Australia’s health topic summary domain: Health system

Differences in health across population groups

There are known avoidable differences in the health of some population groups within Australia (Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2008).

What are health inequities?

Health inequities are ‘differences in health status or in the distribution of health resources between different population groups, arising from the social conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age’ (WHO 2018).

They are unfair, with social and economic costs, but they can be reduced through the right mix of interventions and policy (WHO 2018).

Health inequities may influence a person’s health status and outcomes (see glossary), as well as their access to and use of the health system. Health inequities can lead to the burden of disease (see glossary) being experienced more acutely by certain population groups. 

For example, in Australia, health inequities are experienced by:

  • First Nations people
  • people living in rural and remote areas
  • people experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage
  • people living with mental illness
  • people with disability
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and/or other sexuality and gender diverse people
  • people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (Department of Health 2021).

Data play a key role in understanding these differences such as their cause, prevalence and impact. This information is critical to support efforts to reduce and remove these disparities. One example of this is interactive mapping identifying which chronic conditions and their risk factors are most common in local regions across Australia (see Geographical variation in disease). It allows for geographical variations in disease to be highlighted, in particular identifying local areas where the prevalence of particular conditions – such as diabetes – are much higher than average. This mapping is used by health professionals to guide more targeted chronic disease prevention and management and improve services for patients in local communities across Australia. 

For more information, see the Australia’s health topic summary domains: Health of population groups and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

How do we measure health?

Many measures can be used to describe and assess the health, or health status, of an individual or a population. These measures help us know if Australians are in good health and how that is changing over time. Some commonly used measures are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Common measures of health status

Life expectancy

The number of years of life, on average, remaining for an individual at a particular age if death rates do not change. The most commonly used measure is life expectancy at birth.


The number or rate of deaths in a population in a given period.


Ill health in an individual and levels of ill health within a population (often expressed through incidence, prevalence and comorbidity measures – see glossary).

Disability-adjusted life year (DALY)

One year of healthy life lost due to illness and/or death. DALYs are calculated as the sum of the years of life lost due to premature death and the years lived with disability due to disease or injury.

Health-adjusted life expectancy

The average length of time an individual at a specific age can expect to live in full health; that is, time lived without the health consequences of disease or injury.

Self-assessed health status

An individual's opinion about their health at a given point in time.

These measures are useful to observe trends over time, compare different population groups and geographic regions, and monitor certain health conditions. Health measures enable differences in health outcomes to be identified. 

For more information, see the Australia's health topic summary domains: Health status and Health of population groups.

Measuring health and wellbeing using indicators

Health indicators are an important way to assess the health of the population and the performance of the health system. An indicator is something that points to, measures or otherwise provides a summary overview of a specific concept (QRI 2023). Indicators are usually reported in sets and a collection of health-related indicators can:

  • offer insights into the health of Australians and the quality of the health system at a point in time (and allow different population groups, different regions and different countries to be compared)
  • provide information on the effectiveness of changes to policies or new practices and programs (when measured consistently over time)
  • improve accountability and transparency of service provision, and support consumer choices relating to health care
  • encourage ongoing improvement in service delivery by highlighting areas of innovation and where better performance is needed.

In Australia, there are a number of indicator ‘sets’ for health or including health measures, and many are associated with national agreements. For instance, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap (2020) uses a set of indicators to measure how well governments are tracking against the agreements with the aim to overcome the inequality experienced by First Nations people and achieve life outcomes equal to all Australians. The indicators are wide ranging and include health measures such as life expectancy and access to health services. For more information, see the Productivity Commission.

Similarly, Australia's Measuring what matters framework includes ‘healthy’ as one of 5 wellbeing themes. ‘Healthy’ is based on a society in which people feel well and are in good physical and mental health, can access services when they need, and have the information they require to take action to improve their health. The framework uses indicators on access to care and support services, access to health services, life expectancy, mental health, and prevalence of chronic conditions for measuring the health of Australians. For more information, see The Treasury

Health indicators for Australia can also be compared with other countries to help understand how Australia’s heath and health system are faring. Comparing health data between similar countries also supports policy planning and decision-making and enables international health-related research, analysis and collaboration. For more information, see Measures of health and health care for Australia and similar countries

The importance of health data in Australia

To get a clear picture of Australia’s health, we depend on data. Accurate, comparable, and comprehensive data enable authorities to identify health trends, assess the effectiveness of existing programs, allocate resources efficiently and equitably, and develop targeted strategies for improving health outcomes. Moreover, such data can facilitate early intervention, preventive measures and better-informed patient care, ultimately contributing to the overall wellbeing and quality of life for the population.

Data about the current health of Australians is extremely important. The more recent and complete data is, the more likely it provides a reliable picture of today. Combining the most up-to-date data with time series information can provide not only information about today, but also an understanding of the journey to this point, and how things have changed. For information about techniques to provide more timely data when the most recent data are several years old, see Australia’s health 2024: data insights article Using nowcasting and projections for statistical understandings in health

COVID-19 and health data

The COVID-19 pandemic made the value of health data more prominent and visible, while also enabling data sharing improvements and more timely release of data. The commitment to establish the Australian Centre for Disease Control (ACDC) reflects the importance of streamlining data sharing processes and using linked data to monitor communicable diseases and understand people’s health outcomes. The ACDC is intended to ensure ongoing pandemic preparedness and support work to prevent and manage disease outbreaks in Australia. 

For more information on monitoring communicable disease and the future of data, see Australia’s health 2024: data insights articles Enhancing communicable disease monitoring in Australia through data linkage and Australia’s health data landscape

Data gaps

The health information landscape has a growing volume of data, and technological advancements are driving opportunities in how information is managed. Despite these enhancements, the issue of inadequate information on various aspects of health and the health system, remains.

Data gaps exist where there are no national or timely data available or where data collected are not comprehensive (limited in coverage or quality) or not in a format that can be analysed or used meaningfully. These gaps can limit the capacity for population health monitoring, research, planning and policy development in important areas of the health system.

Some gaps in Australian health data include:

  • information about the health conditions managed and outcomes of individuals in primary care (general practice and allied health services) or private hospitals or private health care providers
  • dementia data – such as prevalence and incidence, clinical diagnosis as well as risk and protective factors (see Dementia data improvements)
  • routinely collected data about oral health status and dental services
  • demographic information that accurately identifies priority population groups – such as information about people who are sex, gender and bodily diverse; and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (for more information, see Culturally and linguistically diverse Australians and LGBTIQ+ communities).

For more information, including what the AIHW is doing to fill some of these gaps, see Australia’s health 2024: data insights articles Australia’s health data landscape and Australia’s dental data landscape.

Dementia data improvements

Dementia (see glossary) is a significant and growing health and aged care issue in Australia. It is also an example of how the absence of reliable data can restrict policy and service planning and prevent an accurate sense of the full impact of dementia. 

The AIHW report Dementia data gaps and opportunities, identified considerable gaps that limit monitoring and reporting. The recent investment of funding in the national dementia monitoring program and dementia data improvements and developments will be used to address these gaps over the next decade, to improve future planning for dementia programs and services.

For more information, see Bringing together data on dementia and Australia’s health 2024: data insights article Improving Australia’s dementia data for national action.

Data linkage

Data linkage – a process combining information from multiple sources, while preserving privacy – is increasingly being used to fill knowledge and data gaps across the health information system. Linkage has played an important role at the AIHW since the AIHW was in established in 1987. From this time, the AIHW has been linking cancer data with mortality data to calculate cancer survival rates. Demand continues to grow both for one-off and more enduring data linkages to answer complex cross-sector and cross-jurisdictional health questions.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information about health and health data, visit: