Trendwatch 2014: The Role of IT in Population Health Management

Bill Walker
Bill Walker

Guest post by Bill Walker, chief technology officer, Aegis Health Group.

Fo r the last several years, there has been an increasing emphasis by the federal government on digitizing the healthcare industry. The allocation of meaningful use dollars to physician practices for converting to electronic health records was only the beginning. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was the seminal event that demonstrated without a doubt that electronic management of patient information was going to be an absolute if hospitals and health systems are to survive.

The ACA puts healthcare organizations at financial risk for duplication of services, lapses in care coordination and questionable patient safety practices. Population health management demands that electronic patient records be accessible for planning, managing and tracking care coordination. But the fact is fully managing the continuum of care for a patient cannot be achieved without data collection both inside and outside the hospital’s walls. This is a trend that will take on increased importance as healthcare reform rolls out in 2014.

Health systems with forward-thinking HIT executives saw the writing on the wall after the ACA became law and began converting their organizations to electronic medical records. Systems that are considering becoming accountable care organizations (ACOs) – and accepting value-based reimbursement, which will become the predominant reimbursement model – need to find ways to track the health status of individuals in their community before they become patients. How? By embracing the use of technology that closes the healthcare loop before people even know they need those services.

Quantifying Healthcare Needs Ahead of the Curve

Healthcare organizations that are true ACOs are already doing this. But even hospitals that are not part of an ACO can get ahead of the curve and identify those consumers with health needs. By offering population health portals, hospitals can gather health metrics on individuals that can help identify those who are at risk for certain conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and much more. These Web-based portals allow individuals to enter biometric data, such as body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood glucose. They query respondents on family history and risk factors. These portals are HIPAA compliant and, when the data is aggregated as a snapshot of a defined population, provide invaluable information for demand forecasting and program planning that can make a positive impact on population health.

Hospitals have been offering health portals for several years. What takes this technology to the next level is bringing it to potential participants wherever they are ? at work, play or worship. Using iPads or tablets health professionals can conduct real-time information gathering using health-risk profile surveys and onsite biometric screening. The results can then be transmitted directly into the individual’s account on the population health portal. This strategy allows for almost instantaneous feedback to the individual and allows for on-the-spot planning for appropriate interventions or prevention strategies. Not only is this helpful for individuals – and obviously for hospitals looking to establish healthier populations – but also employers who offer onsite biometric testing and health-data gathering find this strategy extremely effective for laying out an action plan that employees can follow to improve their health. Many businesses are stressing wellness programs as a way to cut their overall healthcare costs.

Managing Health Information

Through these strategies, providers will be amassing huge amounts of data that will need to be stored, sorted and measured against actual utilization of services. Managing the health information collected on individuals is where the rubber hits the road. Some population health portals bridge the gap between the information consumers put into their personal health record and a health system’s inpatient data. These portals are compatible with the HL7 ADT platforms and can link to the data maintained in hospitals’ EMRs. This linkage allows hospitals to “listen” to the data contained in consumers’ health accounts; analyze it to build outreach programs; and, in turn, create effective database marketing strategies built around health conditions such as obesity, diabetes or heart disease. In the coming years IT will have more – not less – involvement in the tools and processes required for effectively managing the vast amounts of data the industry is collecting.

Healthcare provider organizations need to leverage the data they have collected by using it to understand their consumers’ health needs and risks. With this information they can then connect with those consumers in a way that is personalized and grows market share, track the results of health interventions to gauge impact on population health, and compare the original data with downstream revenue.

The ACA has put a spotlight on the healthcare industry’s responsibility to keep people healthy rather than simply care for them when they’re ill. This requires providers reaching out into the community and identifying health risks before people become patients. Population health portals are essentially a way of linking consumers with the health services they need – sometimes, before they even know they need them.

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