The tool is already leading to policy changes. Researchers in the UK teamed up with Murray to produce a report on how it compared with 19 other wealthy countries, in both 1990 and 2010. Published in March in The Lancet, the study demonstrates the UK has successfully reduced cancer deaths, but lags behind in addressing cardiovascular disease and tackling the increasing rates of alcohol- and drug-related illnesses.
“From a policy perspective, that’s extremely important,” says Sir Michael Richards, director for reducing premature mortality at National Health Service England. “Instead of saying how fantastic it is that we’ve improved, this says that we’ve still got a lot to do if we want to be among the best in the world.”
Chinese scientists have also worked with the IMHE to compare health statistics in their country today with those from 20 years ago, and to other major economies in the G20. In a study published in the Lancet earlier this month, the team found that while China has made rapid improvements in reducing infant mortality and improving life expectancy, it is facing a growth in diseases related to poor diets, high blood pressure, tobacco use, and environmental and household air pollution.
The tool has proven so useful that other countries are now working with the IMHE to collect and analyse their own health outcomes on the regional level within each country. Murray says Indonesia’s minister of health and office of the President are “very excited about the visualisations” and want to drill down into local results with a larger team of Indonesian researchers. China, Australia, Brazil and the UK are also interested in more detailed, within-country versions, and the government of Saudi Arabia has begun a new collaboration with the IMHE to track the health of its citizens and inform future policy decisions.
For now, the website is designed with policy makers in mind – government officials and scientists. Some curious non-experts may feel a little overwhelmed by the volume of information available. For these people, the team is considering adding a simpler layer that will be even more accessible for the general public, “taking away all the complicated controls, the great degree of detail, and just hammering home key points,” says Speyer. The goal, he continues, is to “make it more intuitive and more fun,” to encourage even more people to engage with the data.
Bill Gates, whose foundation funds both the IMHE and the GBD, raved about the site during a speech to mark its launch at his foundation's headquarters in Seattle, calling it “one of the best efforts that has been done” in data visualisation.
He went on to stress how important it is in the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which seeks to improve healthcare and reduce extreme poverty internationally, by, for example trying to convince the governments of countries including India to adopt the pneumococcus vaccine.
"When you have a tool like this, you can even drill down and see the various studies that have been built up to support this information," said Gates. "This is going to help us tell that story and get better health policies more rapidly than we’ve been able to do in the past.”