What is Population Health? Definition Beginning to Gel

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Karen Utterback By Karen Utterback 
Vice President, Strategy, McKesson
People asking the question, ‘What is population health’

The term population health is used so frequently these days you’d think its meaning was widely accepted. The truth is, the definition depends on who you’re speaking with.

Still, we’re beginning to form some consensus—always a good thing. Earlier this year, the online master of health administration program at the Milken Institute of Public Health at George Washington University surveyed more than 100 leaders, asking them to define population health.

The researchers said they had found some definitions of population health emphasized outcomes, some focused on measurement, and others emphasized accountability. They further said the original concept as defined by David Kindig and Greg Stoddart in 2003 (“the health outcome of a group on individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group”) does not acknowledge the role healthcare providers must take to impact outcomes. So, they set out to “create a new dialog featuring a variety of thought leaders in the field.”

You can read each of the 37 responses here. The researchers noted that only two people directly cited the original definition (Kindig and Stoddart) and that although understanding of the phrase differed greatly, many respondents view population health as an opportunity for healthcare systems, agencies and organizations to work together to improve the health outcomes of the communities they serve.

“While we may not have reached a universal consensus on what ‘population health’ means, we discovered that now is the time to think differently—not only about the definition of population health—but also about the way health care is delivered,” they write. “In our ever-evolving healthcare environment, perhaps the ‘traditional way’ may not be the right answer.”

Teresa Lee, executive director, Alliance for Home Health Quality and Innovation, points out that the Triple Aim is one reason the term “population health” has been of increasing interest lately.

“As the healthcare system evolves to achieve the Triple Aim, I think the term that better captures our collective goal is ‘population health management,’” she says. “To improve the health of populations, we will need to manage the health of the populations we serve, with a focus on the patients who are higher risk (and often more frail) and therefore more likely to have poor outcomes in the absence of critical healthcare (medical and skilled), as well as community-based services and supports.”

Lee observes that by providing care in the home, where patients live in communities, home healthcare is well positioned to engage those high-risk patients and effect the changes needed to achieve population health management, in partnership with accountable care organizations, bundled payment arrangements and patient-centered medical homes.

Learn how to partner with other healthcare organization to provide care to more high-risk patients in this blog post.

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