Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Illness, disease, and sickness absence: an empirical test of differences between concepts of ill health
  1. Anders Wikman1,
  2. Staffan Marklund1,
  3. Kristina Alexanderson2
  1. 1Department of Work and Health, Swedish National Institute for Working Life, Stockholm, Sweden
  2. 2Section of Personal Injury Prevention, Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr A Wikman
 Department for Work and Health, National Institute for Working Life, 113 91 Stockholm, Sweden;


Objectives: In studies of public health and morbidity different concepts of ill health are often seen as interchangeable alternatives. With the help of extensive population information this research intends to show how different concepts and measurements produce very different pictures of health and ill health. The concept trilogy of “illness,” “disease,” and “sickness” is used to capture different aspects of ill health.

Design: Cross sectional data were obtained through comprehensive interview surveys 1988–2001 and registers of sickness absence. Because of lack of data some years had to be excluded.

Settings: Swedish population.

Participants: Annual data for around 3500 employed and self employed persons.

Main results: Most people have some sort of illness or complaint. Fewer could be registered with a disease. Even fewer had been on sick leave. The overlap was fairly low. There also was an obvious discrepancy between reporting having a disease and a subject’s rating of general health. It was shown that the different concepts showed different trends over time.

Conclusions: The discrepancies between the concepts imply that you have to be very careful when using public health data to illustrate different aspects of morbidity. The comparatively low degree of overlap between them shows that they represent different realities. There is a need to do further empirical research about how different aspects of morbidity are interrelated. Their lack of interrelation seems to be an important research area worth developing further.

  • indicators of public health
  • self reported health
  • register information

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • Funding: none.

  • Conflicts of interest: none declared.

Linked Articles

  • In this issue
    Carlos Alvarez-Dardet John R Ashton