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BMC Public Health









Self-rated health (SRH) is widely used to measure subjective health. Yet it is unclear what underlies health ratings, with implications for understanding the validity of SRH overall and across sociodemographic characteristics. We analyze participants’ explanations of how they formulated their SRH answer in addition to which health factors they considered and examine group differences in these processes.


Cognitive interviews were conducted with 64 participants in a convenience quota sample crossing dimensions of race/ethnicity (white, Latino, black, American Indian), gender, age, and education. Participants rated their health then described their thoughts when answering SRH. We coded participants’ answers in an inductive, iterative, and systematic process from interview transcripts, developing analytic categories (i.e., themes) and subdimensions within. We examined whether the presence of each dimension of an analytic category varied across sociodemographic groups.


Our qualitative analysis led to the identification and classification of various subdimensions of the following analytic categories: types of health factors mentioned, valence of health factors, temporality of health factors, conditional health statements, and descriptions and definitions of health. We found differences across groups in some types of health factors mentioned—corresponding, conflicting, or novel with respect to prior research. Furthermore, we also documented various processes through which respondents integrate seemingly disparate health factors to formulate an answer through valence and conditional health statements. Finally, we found some evidence of sociodemographic group differences with respect to types of health factors mentioned, valence of health factors, and conditional health statements, highlighting avenues for future research.


This study provides a description of how participants rate their general health status and highlights potential differences in these processes across sociodemographic groups, helping to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how SRH functions as a measure of health.


Author Posting. © The Authors 2017. This article is posted here for personal use, not for redistribution. The article was published in BMC Public Health, vol. 17, no. 771, 2017,

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.