Recently I accepted a new position as the Medical Director for Population Health for my organization. Since that time, I have answered the same question many times for my patients, family and friends: “What is population health?” In explaining this I sometimes refer to the Loran Eiseley story, “The Star Thrower.” In the story, a man comes upon a boy on the beach throwing starfish back into the water. Realizing that there were thousands of starfish on the shore, the man questioned what difference the boy’s actions would really make. As the boy threw another into the ocean, he said, “It made a difference to that one.”
In medicine, it has always been – and will remain – crucial to make a difference in an individual’s life. I love being a physician and helping each patient get the chance to put something “back where it belonged,” like trying to fix blood pressure values, curing infections or treating painful symptoms.
The relationships I have with patients continue to inspire me. Yet I also recognize that health care is getting more complex, more expensive and more difficult to navigate. With these complexities come social barriers such as medication affordability, transportation struggles and increasing disability. Modern medicine has done a good job keeping people healthy longer into life, but sometimes people have many medical problems and medications, outgrow their retirement accounts or are distant from their families. Challenges of this size require us to rethink how we deliver care to patients on a larger scale than “a single starfish.”
Keeping with the starfish example, population health strategies might include analyzing the starfish situation on the beach overall, hiring trucks to scoop all the starfish off the shore or coordinating with local fisherman to take the truckloads of starfish out to sea. Strategies might also include a research study to figure out why the starfish landed on the shore in the first place to keep it from happening in the future.
Population health services look at new, competing treatment guidelines and assess strategies to make implementation easier for providers, utilizing members of the health care team in innovative ways. We assess costs and try to figure out why there are differences from one geographic region to another. We identify patients’ barriers to staying healthy or following health care recommendations, and determine what community resources are available to assist in overcoming these barriers. We look for ways to partner with local health departments, employers, support groups, pharmacy assistance programs, community benefit organizations and other entities with a common goal to make not just one patient or one group of patients healthier, but to make our community healthier.
Population health services strive to analyze many aspects of the health of our community, looking for ways to assist physicians to provide high quality care while also identifying and addressing the patient’s health care barriers. It is another way health care systems are working to help all patients put their health care needs “back where they belong.”