I’m pleased to present the first in a series of articles discussing population health. Before we can truly jump into the depths of population health and how it will transform healthcare into its next stage of evolution, we need to understand what population health is and how it is different from the way doctors and hospitals have served the communities they are in.
There are two forms of care that are being commonly referred to in the medical community: episodic care and population health. Over the past few decades, the medical community has been focused on episodic care. For example, you catch the common cold and your home remedy routine of orange juice and chicken noodle soup isn’t working. You call your family physician and schedule an appointment just to make sure you don’t have strep throat. You see your provider, they alleviate your fears of strep throat, she gives you something for your symptoms, and you head home. This is referred to as episodic care, care that is focused on you when you are sick.
Today, doctors and hospitals are striving to take a different approach, an approach focused on truly caring for the community through an understanding of the patient’s “social determinants.” The four social determinants commonly used when practicing population health in a community were first developed by the University of Wisconsin. It concludes that there are four main factors that contribute to a patient’s health outcomes, each posing a different weight on the outcome: 20 percent is clinical care, 10 percent is the physical environment, 30 percent is health behaviors, and the final 40 percent is socioeconomic factors. What is most interesting about this description of population health is that an overwhelming 80 percent of population health has absolutely nothing to do with clinical care or what the doctors or hospitals are doing to care for your issue! It is absolutely about factors such as proper access to grocery stores, education about the dangers of smoking while pregnant, and the individual’s own health behaviors such as a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
Population health works when there is an active collaboration between the hospitals, doctors, and community including charitable organizations, public health agencies, education systems, local governments, and even employers. By working with these organizations, doctors and hospitals can foster an environment of care that creates educated patients and ultimately supports a healthier and happier community. Health systems have humbly realized that they cannot treat the health of a community alone. Looking to the future with this focus on population health, opportunities lie in streamlining systems and coordinating care with the support and collaboration of the community and its members.