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New guidelines to measure health published by UN agency

New guidelines to measure health published by UN agency

Taking a step that challenges mainstream ideas on health and disability, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today released a new publication to classify the functioning and health of people across the globe.

In a statement issued in Geneva, WHO said 191 countries had accepted The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health – or ICF -- as the international standard to describe and measure health and disability.

Using the ICF framework, the UN agency estimates that as much as 500 million healthy life years are lost each year due to disability associated with health conditions. “This is more than half the years that are lost annually due to premature death,” the statement said.

While traditional health indicators are based on the death rates of populations, the ICF shifts focus to "life" – how people live with their health conditions and how these can be improved to achieve a productive, fulfilling life. It has implications for medical practice, for law and social policy to improve access and treatment, and for the protection of the rights of individuals and groups.

“ICF changes our understanding of disability, which is presented not as a problem of a minority group, nor just of people with a visible impairment or in a wheelchair,” the statement said, noting that the Classification provided a mechanism to document the impact of the social and physical environment on a person's functioning. For example, when a person with a serious disability finds it difficult to work in a particular building because it does not provide ramps or elevators, the ICF identifies the needed focus of an intervention, i.e. that the building should include those facilities and not that the person be forced out of the job because of an inability to work.

The new publication puts all disease and health conditions on an equal footing, irrespective of their cause, taking into account that a person may not be able to attend work because of a cold or angina, but also because of depression. “This neutral approach puts mental disorders on a par with physical illness and has contributed to the recognition and documentation of the world-wide burden of depressive disorders, which is currently the leading cause, worldwide, of life years lost due to disability,” WHO said.

The ICF is the result of a seven-year effort involving 65 countries and rigorous scientific studies to ensure that it is applicable across cultures, age groups and genders.