Please: Don’t Say Population Health Again

Joel Splan
Joel Splan

Guest post by Joel Splan, chief executive officer, Galen Healthcare Solutions.

On the first day of HIMSS 2014 in Orlando, I stepped into a bewildering echo chamber. “We’re doing population health,” repeated everyone, be they physicians at a hospital whose EHR system my company implemented, the IT directors of other hospitals looking to update their EHR system or competing EHR experts. Everyone was interested in buying it, and everyone was interested in selling it. On one particular walk of the floor a colleague quipped, “Will there be a prize for the one millionth person to say ‘population health?’”

Despite this obsessive buzz nobody seemed able to define what population health is. It’s the proverbial elephant described by touch rather than sight. Is it a concept of health or a study of the various factors that affect health? Is it a course of action for the treatment of the population in its entirety or individual patients only?

The Affordable Care Act, which cites population health as an essential component of its mandate, aims to expand access to the healthcare delivery system, improve the quality of care, enhance prevention, make healthcare providers responsible for outcomes, and promote disease prevention at the community level.

All of this is commendable, but, in the end, what is population health? What does it look like? Will we recognize it if we achieve it? A friend of mine on the payer side observes that vendors claim it’s everything and providers don’t know exactly what they want it to be. Put those together and the term becomes meaningless.

There are additional questions about population health that remain unanswered. Is it an outcome, as the ACA approach suggests, or is it a foundation built on big data, analytics, ACO tools, bundled payments, systems consolidations or something else? At every HIMSS booth, the answer to these questions was a resounding “Yes.”

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