“What is population health anyway?” That was the lead-in question posed at the POLITICO Outside, In thought leadership event, “Is Population Health Popping?” During the opening moments of the event, it became evident that population health takes on new meaning depending on your point of view. For example, the health system CEO has a different perspective compared to the innovator trying to discover technology solutions. And to the physician or public health official, population health takes on an even more different meaning based on how best to care for patients in their communities. However, the ensuing discussion did confirm the premise: population health management is key to improving healthcare quality, driving better outcomes for patients, and lowering costs.
I was reminded over the course of the discussion that health means more than just healthcare. Behavior and genetics are major determinants of overall health at 37 percent and 25 percent, respectively. But socio-economic factors also affect overall wellbeing from diet to family support to a person’s ability to afford or understand new technologies and what zip code a patient lives in. For this reason, population health programs must be viewed as part of a broader support network, connecting patients with care and their communities. In other words, for the systemic changes we endeavor to make to be successful, population health management requires the marriage of technology and patient data and engagement.
Our challenge is threefold. First, design the right technologies that will collect data, including information beyond health records, such as environment and education. Second, weave these technologies together in a manner that aggregates and analyzes the data to help inform the right care delivery at the right time, and predict future health needs. Third, persuade patients to be more involved in their own health, overcoming the episodic nature of healthcare delivery systems. The result is individualized treatment based on the whole patient, accounting for the unique factors in their daily lives that contribute to their wellbeing.
Panelist Dr. Joseph Wright, Chairman of Pediatrics at Howard University, translated population health into an old parable. When a man discovered a neighbor drowning in a river, he jumped in to save him. When the man saw another person drowning in the same river, he turned and walked away. Instead of jumping into the river again, the man headed upstream to stop others before they fell in the river – he went to the source of the problem to find a solution. Dr. Wright, an emergency physician by training, is conditioned to seeing people in an acute episodic care setting who often look to him as primary care. He considers how we can reach patients earlier to help them avoid an emergency room trip in the first place.