Purpose – Multiple connotations and conceptions of health need are currently in use. The purpose of this paper is to specify some important distinctions regarding this confusing multiplicity in a taxonomic fashion relevant to the economic problems that arise in addressing health need. Classification is possible with the relevant concepts in conventional economic theory. The classification applies wherever economic considerations bear upon health need. Design/methodology/approach – Initially, some seminal economic ideas about need are presented from Marshall, Pauly, Banfield, Jevons, Deaton and Meullbauer, and Georgescu-Roegen. Recent discussions of basic needs by Sen and Nussbaum concerning “capabilities” and human flourishing are also considered. Ruger's subsequent developments of these concepts specifically for health are noted. The paper then specifies and classifies the current economic connotations of “health need” by applying positive economic analysis and the framework of economic theory. In particular, the conventional theories of consumer demand and production supply are useful. Geometric tools of analysis along with illustrations from the health sector specify various distinctions and classifications. Findings – The uses of the generic term “need” relate to quite different economic problems. The findings show how diverse interpretations of need can be specified. Originality/value – Distinctions over health need are important since, in many Western countries, need is one of the “pillars” of the Welfare State. Effective policy requires sound conceptions and measurements of need. Given the relevance of economics for approaching competing resource uses in the face of health need, measurement of need is improved with taxonomy, and confusion reduced.