Population health is here, but can the care delivery system keep up?

Hospitals are collecting mountains of data they can use to advance patient care. But among the thorniest problems they collectively face is being able to put that data to work within existing confines of today’s healthcare systems. 
By Tom Sullivan
12:59 PM
Population Health

CHICAGO — The healthcare industry is on the cusp of having actionable data that clinicians and executives for the first time can use to gain insights and ultimately apply to individual payments.

“We’re finally starting to collect the data we need for process improvement and quality improvement,” Michael Dulin, MD, director of the Academy of Population Health at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. “But the care model itself is still behind and that to me is what population health is – how do we improve the delivery of care?”

One of the biggest challenges ahead of the industry, however, is transforming the delivery system itself to enable population health management initiatives and practices — and doing so on a large scale that is based on data.

“We need to redesign the care delivery system from the bottom up based on data,” Dulin added during a keynote here at the Pop Health Forum 2016. “The current system was not based on data or what the community needs.”

Evolving definition
The concept of population health is hard, difficult for many people to understand, lacking well-known success stories and, perhaps hardest of all, still coming into focus and constantly changing.

“Pop health used to be taking care of all the patients I had,” said Adrian Zai, MD, clinical director of Population Informatics at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is part of Partners Healthcare. “Then it became all the patients we take care of in the healthcare system – but really isn’t it community that we take care of as a healthcare system? We exclude a lot of patients that don’t come in because they’re not sick.”

Caradigm Vice President Brad Miller said the great irony in current discussions is that it’s one thing to talk about these powerful cohorts but population health is really about patients.

 More articles from the Pop Health Forum 2016 in Chicago: 
⇒ Triple Aim alone will never bend the cost curve
⇒ Healthcare providers chasing bright, shiny population health objects, expert says
⇒ Reality check: Population health on today's IT

“This is all about understanding particular groups and having a vision for perfect health among those groups,” said Madeleine Biondolillo, MD, vice president of Population Health Management at the Connecticut Hospital Association. “Just about the second you get used to something, it changes.”

In other words: put a group of population health professionals on stage together and each will have a somewhat different definition and approach — but the common theme today is that population health is going to require healthcare systems not only to have accurate data, but also the ability to put the data to work across several organizational aspects: revenue generation, market share and, of course, improving outcomes in the clinical setting.

Rallying cry for change
Larry Burnett, a principal in consultancy KPMG’s Health Solutions practice, said the transition is occurring as more and more provider organizations are thinking about care coordination and longitudinal data about patients and populations.

“The data must be accurate so it tell a clinical story different from what we’ve done in the past,” Burnett said, adding that just having data about length of stay or the last test results is not enough and, instead, organizations need to be tracking patients longitudinally across the care continuum.

Dulin, of UNC Charlotte’s Academy for Population Health Innovation, put forth a rallying cry for healthcare organizations to figure out the population health management puzzle and advance themselves from there.

Twitter: SullyHIT
Email the writer: tom.sullivan@himssmedia.com

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