No more 'death by ZIP code'

Leveraging old data to improve population health
By Terry Fouts, MD
07:58 AM

Population health will continue to be a focus in 2015, but we should start the year off by looking at some new ways to leverage underutilized and overlooked data. We can see the shortcomings of population health initiatives particularly in the "death by ZIP code" pandemic across the country today. 

Where you live and what you do has more of an impact on your healthcare than anything else. Doctors have known for decades that that a person’s health outcome is determined largely by their behaviors and access to care, and less so by innate biology. 

Take a look at the 94101-94199 zip codes of San Francisco, one of the most affluent cities in the country with a high concentration of hospitals and healthcare facilities. 

Yet if we look at the same area and observe the incidents of asthma, we’ll see that the wealthy regions with a higher concentration of healthcare facilities in fact have higher ER rates. Clearly money and a high density of hospitals is not the magic recipe for health. 

Today, this information is just that – static information that lives on a color-coded graphic. What it needs to turn into in 2015 is action. 

Despite the troves of information we now have at our fingertips, the healthcare industry still does not have a way to rapidly and effectively identify, stratify and triage patients into cooperative multidisciplinary systems. Put simply, we are selling ourselves short and we need to make the leap and look at where people live and their behaviors. 

The electronic health record is a great first place to start. EHRs need to empower the doctor and make the demographic data determined largely by a patient’s zip code seamlessly available. In an ideal scenario, this should go hand-in-hand with a patient’s medical history. 

In addition to the EHR, clinicians also have first-hand knowledge of the patient from the patient themselves, information from family and friends, health risk appraisals, biomedical data and social data. 

Large pools of data covering every aspect of the patient add richness to the activity that is hard to match with single source anecdotal information. If, and it is a big ‘if’ but growing smaller, we could amalgamate all of the inpatient data with the ambulatory data, the personal data, and the claims data, healthcare providers could get an accurate, focused and timely view of where an individual is in their care cycle and identify needed interventions and support. 

Integrating more data into the EHR may take up more time and be another chore but it will be worth it. It’s no secret that EHRs and the current Meaningful Use incentive program present many time and workflow challenges for doctors. In a recent SERMO poll of 1,800 physicians across the U.S., 59 percent identified EHRs as their biggest technology challenge in 2015.

Adding another layer to the EHR will certainly do nothing to minimize the technology challenges. But the payoff is worth it. Anything that will give you a significantly better picture of a patient is worth it. The entire healthcare industry is overlooking this valuable resource – vendors and doctors alike. This is a call to action for everyone. 

It’s clear in 2015 that leveraging existing resources to increase operational efficiencies is no longer an option and a must do. Like many other sustainability movements of our time, healthcare is eliminating waste and looking at ways to operate more efficiently with existing resources.

But we need to stop selling ourselves short and do more to access the untapped goldmine of information that could revolutionize and transform the way we do population health. 2015 must be the year of the patient and population health success, not population health attempts.