The government is to set up the most comprehensive database yet to measure the health of people in England as part of leaked plans to improve life expectancy and boost the fight against the biggest deadly diseases.
Ministers intend to create a “composite health index” which will track whether the population’s health is getting better or worse and the stark difference between rich and poor when it comes to illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
The detailed picture of whether people are getting healthier or unhealthier is intended to enable ministers across government, in areas such as housing, transport and the environment, as well as health, to consider the likely impact of proposed policies on overall physical and mental health.
Public health experts have welcomed the plan, which is outlined in the government’s forthcoming green paper on prevention of ill-health, which is due to be published shortly.
The index “will provide a visible, top-level indicator of health, and can be tracked alongside our nation’s GDP”, the green paper says.
“It will measure changes in health over time and, along with other indicators, can be used by government to assess the health impacts of wider policies.”
The green paper says the index is “part of a wider shift towards viewing health as one of the primary assets of our nation, contributing both to the economy and to the happiness of the population”.
Prof Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England and the government’s chief medical adviser, has championed the idea.
Its adoption represents a significant shift in thinking for the government, which is expected to ramp up efforts to prevent ill-health from developing in the first place rather than prioritising treatment.
The Office for National Statistics is expected to help draw up the index.
The Royal Society for Public Health said turning the “bold and optimistic idea” of an index into reality would help ministers to incorporate health prevention when drawing up policies.
Shirley Cramer, the society’s chief executive, said: “So often we talk about the need for government departments to work together on prevention. Whether it’s housing, education, transport or the environment, everyone has a part to play in shaping our nation’s health, and a new health index would help bring this all together.”
The green paper also includes plans to:
- Introduce a levy on the tobacco industry, based on the principle of “the polluter pays”, to help fund the cost of treating people with smoking-related diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
- Extend the sugar tax, which currently applies only to sugary drinks, to other highly sweetened products such as milkshakes.
- Encourage everyone to get at least seven hours’ sleep a night as part of new government advice on “sleep hygiene” and to reduce the risk of obesity, depression and other conditions.
- Restate the government’s ambition to boost longevity by five years by 2035, while narrowing the 19-year gap in life expectancy between England’s wealthiest and poorest citizens.
However, the paper is unlikely to include proposals to reverse £850m of cuts to local health budgets made since 2014. The cuts have led to the scaling back of sexual health support, help for people to stop smoking, anti-obesity measures, health visiting services and treatment for those addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Jo Bibby, the director of health at the Health Foundation thinktank, said: “With health inequalities widening and life expectancy improvements stalling in the UK, we need bold action and new ways of measuring policy success. Now is the time for the government to move beyond traditional economic indicators such as GDP and look at wider ways to measure the wellbeing and health of the population.
“Developing a health index for England would be a significant step in the right direction, signalling for the first time that maintaining and improving people’s health is a primary measure of a successful government.”