Population Health and What it Really Means

State of the Union

It’s hard to discuss population health or the topic of healthcare in the United States and not hear about how expensive it is. In the United States, we spend about $10,000 per person per year on healthcare. That amount is approaching 20% of our country’s gross domestic product. The Peterson Foundation tells us, that second place for highest per capita healthcare spending is Switzerland, at about $7000. Sweden and Germany spend about $5000. France is at $4500, while the UK, Australia, and Japan spend about $4000.1

Despite the high spend, both media and healthcare reform advocates point to the fact that the United States is behind many industrialized nations in quality of care. The current WHO ranking for the U.S. healthcare system is 37th.2 Many wonder how we spend so much and seem to have the best at everything, yet still have such a low health score. If you are an American, white male who is wealthy and educated, you have access to the best healthcare in the world, period. Change any of those variables, and your access to that “best healthcare“ is diminished. Period.

The factor of wealth alone lead to a thirteen-year difference in age of death.3 Some would say your zip code is the primary indicator of longevity. In greater Philadelphia there is a twenty-year difference in lifespan between the best and worst zip codes. Spend varies wildly too. In America, 20% of our population accounts for 90% of our spend.

There are multiple factors to our ranking but the biggest impact is the discrepancy between the people with the worst health in the U.S. and those with the best. It depends how you define health or what factors you consider lead to a healthy environment whether your country is ranked high or low. In fact, there were 100 indicators in use by WHO in 2015.4 For example, our alcohol usage, sexuality, suicide and obesity negatively impact our numbers compared to other nations although we rarely deal with other issues like tuberculosis or amount of spending on healthcare.

Population Health Panacea

Most medical literature today mentions population health. Healthcare systems are promoting it across the country. Universities are beginning to offer certification and advanced degrees in it. Hospitals and health systems are hiring executives to run it. A countless host of medical vendors are offering solutions that deliver it. What is it?

In 2003, Dr. David Kindig, Emeritus Professor of Population Health Sciences and Emeritus Vice-Chancellor for Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposed that population health was “the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group.”5 Three terms should jump out: outcomes, group and distribution.


The World Health Organization defines an outcome as a “change in the health of an individual, group of people, or population that is attributable to an intervention or series of interventions.” It is the resulting change in health after a specific effort. WHO includes things like malaria and access to clean water in its world health ratings. We simply don’t worry much about those in the U.S. However, our culture of sexual freedom does care about the incidence of HIV and access to family planning, two other outcomes used by the WHO.

The problem with outcomes is the variation. They could be macro-measurements like national infant mortality rate or expected lifespan; or they could be very targeted measures such as uncontrolled diabetes in rural areas or hypertension of people living in economically depressed regions.

You have to determine what outcomes you are trying to move. They must be defined and measured. They must be tracked. It could be the percent of women over 50 with a biennial, breast cancer screening. It could be the blood pressure for all adults in a county. The combinations of outcomes are infinite. You must decide which are important and which aren’t. Once known, an action plan can be created and deployed. Outcomes should improve over time. This will define whether your interventions are working or not. You can’t use the same outcomes for different groups. Each group must use their own customized outcomes.


There is the “population” part of population health. Kindig calls it a “group of individuals.” What defines a group? Like outcomes, there are an infinite number of ways to define a group. Using the previous example, the group could be all women over 50. It could be the entire state of Ohio. Health systems, however, like to define populations by disease state or condition.

Several tech firms offer software to “identify all individuals” with a high-risk condition that will eventually lead to an exacerbation and hospitalization if left untreated. Popular ones include all patients with a blood pressure greater than 140 over 90 (hypertension) or all patients with a hemoglobin A1c over 7.0 (uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes).

For this reason, many healthcare systems have been forced by insurance companies to hire nursing care coordinators (CCs). These CCs specifically target rising-risk and high-risk patients to lower the cost of future care. Therefore, they define populations as the ones “on these lists.”

Medicare is the federal health insurance program for people who are 65 or older, certain younger people with disabilities, and people with End-Stage Renal Disease. There population includes anyone approved for participation in the program.6

Medicaid is a state program (funded jointly by states and the federal government) that provides health coverage to millions of Americans, including eligible low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults and people with disabilities.7  There are fifty different populations for Medicaid.

Depending on your interest, the population varies. Often people are overlooked until there is a known problem. There is very little interest in healthy or low-utilization groups of individuals.


The term “health inequities” is used when negatively defining distribution. The WHO defines health inequalities as “differences in health status or in the distribution of health determinants between different population groups.” 8 For instance, what are the individual BMIs for a group of people and why do they vary. Is it due to lack of access to healthy food or regular exercise or is it something else?

Some believe the distribution of outcomes should be equitable across the entire population. Zero variance is best. There shouldn’t be spikes, dips and huge variances. Your view on how equitable variation should be likely determines your political alignment and what the government should be doing for poor performers. Regardless, everyone is placed in the healthcare system. It is complex.

Healthcare Players

Healthcare providers, federal and state government, employers, and insurers are the major institutions in healthcare. Supporting these are a host of other entities such as medical device makers, pharmaceuticals, IT firms and more.

Healthcare Systems

According to Becker’s Hospital Review, just over 20% of United States hospitals are run as a for-profit business. That leaves almost 80% that are either not for profit or government funded. Provided they achieve annual profitability to continue operating, their primary focus is providing care.9 Healthcare systems provide the actual care for the patient in outpatient, inpatient or virtual settings. They own the physicians, clinical staff and administrators that run hospitals and clinics. They bill a third party for your services. This is the government or your insurance agency.


The government creates policy that impacts all players in the healthcare arena, including all of the aforementioned entities. It is their responsibility to look after the health of its citizens. Historically, government’s view on health changes based on which party controls it.

The U.S. government pays for about half of all medical expenses today. Medicare and Medicaid make up nearly forty percent of spend and other government programs are an additional twelve percent. (Private insurance is over forty percent and the balance of the total spend is out-of-pocket.) The government became a significant player in the healthcare market when most insurance was running through employers, leaving out the elderly and poor. The Medicare bill that included Medicaid was signed in 1965. This led to the formation of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).10

Although there are nuances, the federal or state government sets the amount they are willing to pay healthcare providers for services provided to Medicare or Medicaid patients. Some suggest that the healthcare reform CMS is pushing is pop health. Initiatives like Accountable Care Organization (ACOs), Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) and other APMs (alternative payment methods) are mentioned in these discussions. I would call this hint-of-pop-health-flavored healthcare. It’s the government’s way of controlling costs and telling healthcare what they will and won’t pay for. It’s not population health.

Healthcare providers are stuck in between the patient and those paying for it, trying to figure out outcomes and populations and interventions. Eager, publicly-traded mega-corporations stand on the sideline, ready to fill the performance gap with solutions. The government defines the reimbursed amount clearly. The healthcare systems have to comply. The amount owed by non-CMS patients varies wildly. Primarily, insurance companies negotiate with health systems on behalf of employers’ health plans.

Insurance Companies

There is no altruism among healthcare insurance companies. They simply want profit. They want a greater share of the insurance dollar. Your health only helps their revenue. The more they collect (from you or your employer) and the less they pay out (for your visits and meds) the more money they make. Costs are controlled by increasing premiums and deductibles. Rates are negotiated with employers on an annual basis. They won’t lose money. That is why many are not on the healthcare.gov exchange in many states.

Less than a century ago, there were no health insurance companies. Health insurance started when a Baptist hospital was looking to keep the bills paid. The hospital worked with a group of public school teachers in Texas. For fifty cents per teacher per month, the hospital would pick up any medical expenses for the teachers. This employer-based plan gained popularity during the Great Depression and eventually got a name: Blue Cross.11  When funneled through the employer, the benefit was tax-free. Eventually, if you were employed, your employer would cover a large portion of your health insurance. The unemployed had to find insurance elsewhere.


For the foreseeable future, employers continue to foot the bulk of the medical insurance spend. Most will send you a statement of benefits showing what you used the prior year. This is useful to decide during “open enrollment” for the following year. Costs are going up the cost of care increases and as the health of our nation decreases. At some point, we must fix the direction of both. This is accomplished by addressing health determinants.

Determinants of Health

You health is determined by five areas. These areas are called the determinants of health. They are biology and genetics, socio-economical, individual behavior, clinical care, and the environment. Each contribute to your overall health. Although 88% of our spend is on clinical care, only 14% of our health is impacted by it. The vast majority of our individual health (79%) is determined by our genetics (30%), socio-economics (28%) and behavior (21%). The remaining 7% is due to our environment.

These determinants impact our health. They create health inequities. They impact the distribution of health across a population. They determine who will get sick, from what, and why. Some we can control. Some we can’t. Some are easy. Some are difficult. Everyday, we make a voluntary or involuntary deposit to our future health. At some point, we will have to pay for a lack of health. 

It is the area of socio-economics that most pop health thought leaders want to target, hoping to improve the lives of those suffering from health inequalities. However, this means a greater invasion into our lives.

Healthcare’s Blurry Lines

Based on a 2015 research study with a client in eastern Massachusetts, a vast majority of patients do not want more interaction with healthcare, they want less. Healthcare is intrusive to their life, not complementary.

They consider health as the ability to do life. There chronic conditions and acute incidents are annoyances in the way of doing life. Their last resort is to enter the healthcare system with all of its cost, complexities, and inconveniences.

Population health advocates want more involvement in the lives of people. They want to push healthcare up the value chain and be even more proactive in people’s lives. They want it to include community meetings, school involvement and rigorous legislation. They want to expand it beyond clinical care. Maybe you agree. Maybe you don’t.

When there is a breakdown in our health, we want it fixed. There are two sides to fixing it: providing healthcare and paying for it. Anyone can find a doctor. Who should pay for it? Does age matter? Race? Level of wealth? There is currently no one responsible for the health of an individual over their entire life. Therefore, population health is a glimpse at a group of people’s health at a specific point in time, either good or bad. It is a snapshot that tells part of the story.

Our determinants impact our need for healthcare and thus our spend. Fairness means we should each pay for our personal predispositions and lifestyle choices along the full continuum of our life. If we are more prone to certain diseases, use tobacco products, eat poorly, fail to exercise or are sexually promiscuous, we should pay more for health. People must be personally responsible for their impact to lifetime healthcare costs.


In my humble opinion, we need a party that is vested in an individual’s full-longitudinal lifespan of health across the entire population. This could be solved with a universal insurer. Our base healthcare would be covered by this insurer and our premium would be accounted for by our top three determinants. Extras such as non-elective procedures would require an additional premium. We would have a full lifetime view and responsibility.

Is population health the future? Some say yes. Others disagree. Truly doing population health would require a massive overhaul that would make the Affordable Care Act seem insignificant. Is it right? Probably. I wrote another article that shares how we can fix health care without waiting for the government. As for me, I’ll keep working on my own health and its contribution to our country’s health.

#StopEatingFries #Exercise #NoTobacco


1 https://www.pgpf.org/chart-archive/0006_health-care-oecd

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/13/health/disparity-in-life-spans-of-the-rich-and-the-poor-is-growing.html

3 http://thepatientfactor.com/canadian-health-care-information/world-health-organizations-ranking-of-the-worlds-health-systems/




7 https://www.medicaid.gov/medicaid/index.html





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