This article appears in the October issue of HealthLeaders magazine.
At its most basic, population health involves improving the health status of a given population by ensuring that members of the population are receiving the healthcare they should be receiving. How? First, one has to define the population. Then one must know what care the population is receiving. Next, identify gaps by comparing the care the population is receiving with the care the population should be getting. Finally, the care delivery system must be able to address care gaps.
Although the tactical implications of these simple statements are considerable, the first order of business for many healthcare providers is to try to sort out financial issues.
With 61% of respondents to our Population Health Survey saying they have selected a patient population and are working to improve the health of that population, it is clear that healthcare leaders recognize the importance of population health management.
However, improving the health of a defined population requires a complex set of activities, many of which are new to healthcare providers. As one might expect with an initiative that seems to have the flavor of a concept rather than a business plan, our research demonstrates that providers have more command over disciplines that have a ring of familiarity, and we see lower comfort levels with newer tasks.
For instance, more than half of respondents (57%) are offering a wellness program now or within the next 12 months. But fewer (48%) expect to take on data analytics functions, a task that most would consider to be more challenging than data integration.
Providers face a set of finance-related decisions, mostly having to do with the risk-sharing assumption that gives healthcare reform its foundation. "Health reform is all about practicing population-based medicine. And the only way we're going to bend the cost curve is by keeping people out of the hospital, reducing unnecessary utilization," says advisor David B. Nash, MD, MBA, founding dean of Philadelphia-based Jefferson School of Population Health—one of six schools and colleges that constitute Thomas Jefferson University, which partners with Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals to care for its patients along with healthcare education and research. "So that means we have to be in the health business, not the sick business. To do that, we're going to have to think about what our community connections are like."