Measuring Progress

Many communities around the nation are working to improve their health. But how can they measure progress? Knowing there are many ways to do this and one size may not fit all, here is some guidance to help see if you are on the right track.

Use Ranks as a Tool

Ranks are great for garnering attention, simplifying a lot of complex data, and making comparisons between one community and another at a point in time—but they shouldn’t be used alone to measure a single community’s progress. Rather, look at them as one tool among many. Because ranks are relative, they aren’t as helpful in isolation -- your county’s rank depends not only on what is happening in your county, but also on what happens in all the other counties in your state. In fact, if every county in a state improved its health equally, their ranks would all stay the same. So look for ranks to inform your progress measurement, not drive it.

Change and Data Take Time

Be realistic about how quickly you can move the needle—it will take time for your efforts to improve your health outcomes.
For example:

  • When you reduce your adult smoking rates significantly, it will still take some time before this positive change reduces the number of preventable deaths due to smoking.
  • When you increase high school graduation rates, some effects will be immediate but it will be years before premature deaths are reduced.

Also, most data collection (via census or survey) has lag times. For example, our premature death rates represent a lag of more than three years, and to be sure that we have reliable data for communities of all sizes, we use three years of data. So, the premature death rates you see for the current Rankings reflect premature deaths from four to six years ago.

Find the Right Measurement and Evaluation Tools

The Rankings provide a snapshot of your county’s health, but there may be unique indicators or aspects of your community that can tell you even more about the health of residents. Finding the right tools to determine what to measure and evaluate as you go can create a clearer picture of your community’s health and progress.

Look for More Data

Different types of data may provide further insights about the health of your county. Are there data sources avaiable for your county that aren’t included in the Rankings? Are there certain groups in your county that are doing better or worse than others in terms of health outcomes? Are there questions you want the answers to, but aren’t sure how to get there?

Take a look at some of the sources that are available to help you find and analyze more data:

Sometimes, other sources of data won’t be available and you may find yourself needing to do some primary data collection. If this is necessary, we strongly recommend that you contact your state health department or a local university to assist you with questions about survey design, analysis and other aspects of data collection. Learn more about collecting your own data.

Is your community ready? Use our Poised for Progress self-assessment tool to help you identify your strengths in building a healthy community and indicate where more focused effort is needed.