Health Information Trends: What Is Population Health?
Healthcare is a massive field. You keep thinking you’re getting a handle on things, when the next layer of detail pops up with terms you’ve never heard before. While it gets confusing, all these nooks and crannies of the health industry offer valuable insights for further education and employment.
On top of that, some trends and arenas of healthcare fade while others become more prominent. One such rising-star topic is population health. This branch of health research concerns itself with the many factors that influence the health of a given population. If that general answer still leaves you asking “What is population health?”—read on and get a better idea of this important area of healthcare.
What is population health?
“Population health is like asking, ‘How healthy is your community?’” says Denise Van Fleet, Health Sciences program coordinator at Rasmussen College. “Is it an active community? A community focused on attaining good health and keeping it?” Van Fleet says evaluating different populations for their health and the concerns that impact them often include measurements on the occurrence of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, blood pressure and cancer.
On one level, population health keeps an eye on threats to general public health. Are infectious outbreaks happening? How many people are smoking or fighting obesity? What is the average life expectancy?
But on another level, population health takes a step further. Instead of merely determining the average health of the city, this approach also looks for population demographic breakdowns. Maybe the overall health is very high, but minority groups are experiencing devastating illnesses. Or maybe there’s a clear divide in the health outcomes between income levels or gender groups.
While we often treat healthcare as an isolated area of our lives, it directly impacts—and is impacted by—everything we do. Population health seeks to understand these connections.
Population health vs. public health
If you’ve looked into public health at all, some of these ideas might sound familiar. Public health is a healthcare focus area that promotes the health of people and communities by trying to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place and promoting healthy behaviors, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA).
The important work of public health can easily intersect with population health, as both seek to understand and improve people’s lives. Part of the division and confusion between these two fields is that public health is a government concern with budgets used to influence policy and behavior.
“Traditionally, public health has been understood by many to be the critical functions of state and local public health departments such as preventing epidemics, containing environmental hazards, and encouraging healthy behaviors,” according to Improving Population Health. The organization points out that governmental public health policies do not always encompass major population health factors like education and income levels.
Factors impacting population health also include medical care coverage, public health interventions, genetics and individual behavior, along with employment, culture and physical environments (urban design, clean air, water, etc.). In a way, population health exists to acknowledge all these determinants and seek solutions for the problems they may cause in differing populations.
Examples of population health issues
According to the Population Health Forum, we can measure the health of a population by:
- Life expectancy
- Infant mortality
- Death rates
- Quality of life
- Self-assessed health
- Happiness and well-being
But population health issues also include the major things that impact the health of a group of people. These issues often relate to the very structure of society, such as:
- Income inequality
- Political, economic and social status
- Social capital/social cohesion (do people participate in their community)
- Psychosocial relationships
- Access to food, clean water, shelter and a safe environment
Where does population health intersect with careers?
So how does it look to make the topic population health part of your job? There will be many intersecting roles from other areas of healthcare, but Van Fleet has seen several roles for professionals to play in population health.
“Healthcare is being challenged by insurance plans to monitor and document items that are known to contribute to poor health, such as smoking, limited exercise, high-fat diets and more,” Van Fleet says, adding that there is a greater emphasis on patient education to improve their year-by-year health.
“Careers are sprouting up in data analytics because of the huge databases contained by electronic health records,” Van Fleet says. “There is a tremendous focus on identifying the data, gathering the data, analyzing the data and then making use of the data through education and program development. Program development might include healthy food cooking courses or yoga courses, as examples.”
Population health at work
Monitoring and developing a better understanding of the factors influencing a population’s health is important—but it’s also important to understand how this information can be used to apply practical solutions or changes to the broader healthcare system. Utilizing the data that population health research uncovers might definitely take some creative thinking, but these big-picture solutions can have an extremely beneficial impact on the whole healthcare industry long term—not to mention the impact on people’s lives.
“The health sciences must ensure they are educating people on population health and what our contributions to population health are currently, as well as what our contributions might become,” Van Fleet says. “The deployment of electronic health records in hospitals, clinics, offices and even in skilled nursing facilities means that data is now very prevalent, and it is responsible to use that data to educate and improve the health of the people—thereby impacting population health.”
Take the lead
Population health isn’t just an abstract term thrown around by healthcare professionals and public policy experts—it is the very real study of the factors that influence a population’s wellbeing. While it might seem like a lofty topic reserved for government officials, data collection from electronic health records can have a huge impact on the day-to-day operations of a healthcare facility. Every bit of information input into these record systems can be analyzed and used to sensibly guide and influence healthcare policy to improve overall health outcomes—and that’s something to be excited about!
Healthcare is in the midst of a data revolution—and the ability to understand how that data can be used to improve patient outcomes is highly desirable. Check out Rasmussen College's Healthcare Administration Master's degree page to learn more about how this program can equip you to be a healthcare leader of the future.