Understanding Population Health and Public Health
The terms “population health” and “public health” sound similar. If you’ve used them interchangeably, you’re not alone. The similarities, both in name and concept, make it easy to overlook their nuanced differences. However, in order to have a productive conversation about the evolution of modern healthcare, it’s important to understand the distinction between these terms.
How Are They Similar?
Some of the confusion involving population health vs. public health stems from the fact that both focus on the health and wellness of a group or community. These concepts look beyond individual care to identify patterns of health and illness within groups of people. By monitoring trends, both population and public health seek to identify interventions or preventive models that can promote health, improve patient outcomes, and reduce overall costs.
Population health is concerned with the medical outcomes of individuals in a specific group with a similar characteristic. This can be defined by geographic location or by other factors such as ethnicity, chronic illness or disability, socioeconomic status, employment, and age. Of course, individuals may belong to multiple populations. When studying population health, researchers look at societal structures, attitudes, and common behaviors that might influence health outcomes with the goal of identifying patterns of determinants and, ultimately, identifying what can improve those outcomes.
Focusing on society at large, public health puts its attention on wellness programs and initiatives designed to prevent disease or injury. Researchers in this arena look to identify steps that can be taken to create conditions in which individuals can be healthy. The focus is often on large-scale initiatives such as smoking cessation, improved air quality, vaccinations, or management of disease outbreaks.
The Role of Health IT in Population and Public Health
The era of digital health tools has made it easier to collect relevant data used to identify specific populations and the social detriments that impact them. Further, innovations like artificial intelligence can be used to sift through the data to more efficiently identify patterns, and later automate tasks that facilitate improved outcomes.
For example, PLSG portfolio company Mental Health Metrics uses statistical process management techniques to intervene in patient care before adverse events occur. A great example of the way health IT can be used for population health initiatives, this start-up provides early detection of a pending patient crisis and triggers a treatment sequence. In turn, the early intervention may translate to a more effective and less expensive approach.
Digital health tools also help collect data used to identify public health issues and then widely disseminate information related those issues. A great example of a company working within this space is another PLSG portfolio company, Health Monitoring Systems (HMS), which aggregates healthcare data from more than 600 U.S. hospital systems and 3,600 ambulatory systems in order to monitor and quickly identify emergent threats to community health. HMS’s novel weather-map-like design is the largest private repository of this data.
Both population health and public health play significant roles in upgrading healthcare systems by improving access, reducing costs, and enhancing outcomes. They are two powerful disciplines working to make meaningful changes to better meet the healthcare needs of individuals.