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). Health reflects the complex interactions of a person’s genetics, lifestyle and environment. Generally, a person’s health depends on 2 things: determinants (factors that influence health) and interventions (actions taken to improve health, and the resources required for those interventions).

Health is fundamental to an individual’s wellbeing. It reflects a person’s relative ability to effectively engage with society—improved health outcomes support better economic (WHO 2019a), educational (Suhrcke & Nieves 2011) and social (Burton 2010) outcomes and conditions (see Social determinants of health and
Health and welfare links).

Australians are generally seen to enjoy good health and to have an effective health system. How do we know this? We compare Australia with other OECD countries and we use the Australian Health Performance Framework to assess the health of our population and health system. It outlines health indicators that describe specific elements of our health or aspects of our health system’s performance; it also compares data for different population groups, different geographic regions, and internationally. The Framework includes the domains of health status, determinants of health, and the health system (see also the Health system snapshots in Australia’s health snapshots).

Measuring health

Many measures can be used to describe the health of an individual or a population. Some commonly used measures are listed in Table 1 below and presented in How healthy are Australians?.

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 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 own opinion about how they feel about their health, their state of mind and their life in general.

These measures are useful to observe trends over time, compare different population groups and geographic regions, and monitor certain health conditions. Health measures allow differences in outcomes to be identified. These measures are discussed in more detail in the Health status and Health of population groups snapshots in Australia’s health snapshots.

What influences health?

‘Health determinants’ are the many risk and protective factors that influence an individual’s health. Figure 1 divides determinants into 4 groups, where the main direction of influence is from contextual factors (broad features of society and environmental factors) through to more direct influences (such as blood pressure and body weight).

Health outcomes affect and are affected by the social determinants of health, a term that encompasses not only social but economic, political, cultural and environmental determinants. Essentially, these are the conditions into which people are born, grow, live, work and age (WHO 2019b).

All of these social determinants interact with the physical and psychological make-up of individuals. Additionally, the factors within each box in Figure 1 can interact and are closely related to each other. See the Determinants of health snapshots in Australia’s health snapshots for more information.

Figure 1: Framework for determinants of health

Health system interventions

The health system supports the health of the nation by treating illness, preventing disease and maintaining people’s health. Health system overview describes how Australia’s health system works. A functioning health system ensures that people remain as healthy as possible for as long as possible. Australia’s health system facilitates this by providing services such as hospital care and primary health care and access to preventative measures such as immunisation and vaccination. Medical research and health promotion are also crucial parts of the system which supports people’s health. See also the Health system snapshots in Australia’s health snapshots.

Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights

The Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights (ACSQHC 2017) describes the 7 key rights of patients and consumers who seek or receive health care:

  • Access—the right to access health care services and treatment that meet their needs
  • Safety—the right to safe and high-quality health care in a safe environment
  • Respect—the right to be treated as an individual, with dignity and respect, and to have culture, identity, beliefs and choices recognised and respected
  • Partnership—the right to be involved in open and honest communication, make decisions with health care providers, and to choose who to include in planning and decision making
  • Information—the right to clear information about conditions and services, and to assistance when needed to understand health information
  • Privacy—the right to privacy and confidentiality of personal information
  • Give feedback—the right to comment on care, to have concerns dealt with transparently and in a timely manner, and to share experiences and participate to improve quality of care and health services (ACSQHC 2017).

The application of the Charter to the health system is informed by 3 guiding principles: the right of everyone to access health care; the commitment of the Australian Government to international agreements recognising the right to health; and the acknowledgement of and respect for the different cultures and ways of life in Australian society.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on health definitions see:


ACSQHC (Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care) 2017. Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights. Sydney: ACSQHC. Viewed 15 November 2019.

Burton J 2010. WHO healthy workplace framework and model: background and supporting literature and practice. Geneva: WHO. Viewed 18 November 2019.

Suhrcke M & Nieves C 2011. The impact of health and health behaviours on educational outcomes in high-income countries: a review of the evidence. Geneva: WHO. Viewed 18 November 2019.

WHO (World Health Organization) 1946. Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19–22 June, 1946. New York: WHO.

WHO 2019a. Health and development. Geneva: WHO. Viewed 18 September 2019.

WHO 2019b. Social determinants of health. Geneva: WHO. Viewed 18 September 2019.