What Is Population Health & Why Is It So Important?

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We often think of healthcare as what occurs in the realm of exam rooms, pharmacies and emergency departments. But health — and the many factors that affect it for better and worse — begin well before patients ever set foot inside a clinical setting.

Population health aims to look at many factors surrounding patient care. Beyond an individual’s current state of health, there’s much to consider: culture, background, socioeconomic status, genetics, work and physical environment to name just a few.

Let’s take a closer look at population health in action and its importance for patients and healthcare providers alike.

What Is Population Health?

Here’s how Dr. Kenneth Cohn, surgeon and CEO of consulting firm Healthcare Collaboration, defines population health: “To me, population health involves the health of the community; it implies wellness promotion as well as the treatment of new and chronic illnesses throughout the care continuum.”

Dr. Cohn goes on to note that population health also implies “improving the health of people previously undermanaged, such as the poor in terms of conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer.” 

As you can see, population health looks at a much wider scope of factors that may affect a defined segment of the population’s likelihood of experiencing certain conditions and health issues.

Population health requires stakeholders across the healthcare landscape to work together and center patients — with the aim of improving the health of communities as a whole. It goes hand-in-hand with favoring a value-based care model in which positive patient outcomes are rewarded over a “fee for service” model in which providers are reimbursed based on what procedures they perform on individuals regardless of outcomes.

The goal? To provide better care to populations — both in terms of quality and patient experience — at a lower cost to the individual and healthcare providers.

As you can imagine, healthcare analytics is on the front lines of the shift toward population health — helping clinicians, pharmacists, insurance companies and administrators gain a deeper understanding of the myriad of factors affecting patient outcomes.

For instance, healthcare organizations can use advanced data analytics platforms like ThoughtSpot to gain insights into metrics like readmission rates and examine the deeper causes and correlations. Then, decision-makers can take these findings and apply them to policymaking and administrative improvements. Insights lurking within data can tell healthcare providers what’s happening across populations as well as what factors are contributing positively or negatively to those outcomes.

How Population Health Differs from More Traditional Models

Here’s just one example of how population healthcare differs from the more traditional volume-based landscape, courtesy of the Mount Sinai Health System.

Joe, a father of two living in New York City, works at a supermarket and speaks Spanish. He deals with diabetes, hypertension, depression and anxiety — but currently faces some barriers in improving his health. In the past few years, he’s had multiple emergency room visits and subsequent hospitalizations. It’s also worth noting it’s difficult for Joe to access healthy foods in his neighborhood.

Here are some of the barriers Joe faces under a traditional, volume-based healthcare system:

  • Medical information and instructions tend to be written in English.
  • Joe has a hard time securing timely appointments with healthcare providers.
  • He has limited transportation, which makes it more difficult to get to appointments.
  • Joe has had to call 911 multiple times as a result of chronic illness.
  • It’s difficult for Joe to miss work for ongoing healthcare appointments and hospitalization.

Frequent hospital readmissions are scary, inconvenient and expensive for everyone involved. So, the goal becomes to provide continuity of care and improve access by addressing social and economic factors — as well as improving communications across the board.

In a system prioritizing population health, Joe could have a much different experience.

Ideally, Joe will receive medical information and instructions in Spanish. His primary care provider, instead of simply referring Joe to a specialist that may take weeks or months to see, would be able to reach out to the specialist directly and get approval for new medication that could really help Joe. The primary care provider would also consider mental health in their care plan, helping connect Joe with valuable resources like a Certified Diabetes Educator and Care Coordinator. 

In other words, patients have strong support in a value-based system. They have access to a rich network of healthcare providers who can share information and come up with a more comprehensive plan for optimizing patient outcomes in defined populations.

Population health aims to improve outcomes and lower healthcare costs across segments of the population by working to create an accessible care continuum and taking into account social, economic and genetic factors every step of the way.

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