The Social Health Atlas: a policy tool to describe and monitor social inequality and inequality in Australia (Journal Article)

Serie Geográfica 2004-2005; 12:103-122

In 1988, in response to an increasing awareness in Australia of the role of social inequality as a key to health inequality, the Social Health Office within the South Australian Health Commission proposed the adoption of a social health strategy. The social health strategy outlined an approach to improving health for all South Australians through a recognition that policies in areas outside of the health sector, such as housing, education, transport etc. can have substantial impact on the health of the general community, and in particular on disadvantaged groups. This is often referred to as a 'social view of health'.

Information was seen as having an important part in this strategy, by describing the socioeconomic and health status profiles of the population. The approach chosen to presenting information was through mapping. Maps present data in a way that is accessible to a wide audience, not only those charged with setting policy and undertaking strategic planning, but to consumers and other community advocates who may have limited skills in handling statistical information presented in more traditional ways. The maps describe the geographic distribution of the population by a range of socioeconomic indicators, together with maps showing their health status and use of health services, thereby highlighting the relationships between the indicators of socioeconomic inequality and inequality in health status. These reports have been titled 'social health atlases'.

Over the fourteen years since the first social health atlas was released, the range and quality of datasets has improved, allowing for a better understanding of the impact of socioeconomic influences on health. It has also been possible to address changes in the overall levels, and patterns in the distribution, of socioeconomic status and health status and to assess the extent to which the health divide has been addressed. The atlases represent a major initiative in strengthening the public health information infrastructure in Australia and are a major policy tool with which to address health inequality arising from social inequality.

Authors: John Glover, Sarah Tennant and Tony Woollacott