The terms “population health,” “public health,” and “community health” have been used frequently in the past two years in describing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. What do these terms mean and how do they help us understand collective health challenges?
The differences between population, public, and community health are largely based on who is included in a particular group, what data is being collected and analyzed, and how that research is used to impact care or public policy. The Milken School of Public Health asked 37 healthcare leaders to define population health and they all came up with slightly different answers.
If organized like a pyramid, population health might be at the top — the smallest and most specific health measurement of a particular population, used mostly by the healthcare industry. In the next level of the pyramid, public health looks at health metrics in a community and is used by healthcare workers, health systems, and community leaders. Community health looks at all the factors that impact the health of a community and the people in it, from health statistics to the social drivers of health that influence our health and well-being.
What Is Population Health?
Population health involves understanding health outcomes and the distribution of care for a group of people, which could be defined by demographic information, specific health needs, geographic location, or other factors. The importance of population health is that it allows healthcare workers to look at health data and the availability of resources for that specific group to inform better health outcomes.
Wayne Brackin, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Baptist Health South Florida, was one of those 37 leaders who gave Milken a working definition of population health. He offered an example of a partnership with Florida International University College of Medicine and Baptist Health South Florida/South Miami Hospital to care for 100 families in a defined neighborhood adjacent to the hospital. As a defined population, there are identifiable needs that can be measured, and a combination of providers from the medical school and the hospital will help those families manage their health.
A detailed source of population data is electronic health records (EHR). Data from these records follow strict privacy requirements while giving public and private health officials the tools to spot worrisome or positive health trends in a specific group of people. A study found that the use of electronic health records and other digital health technology to access population health analytics improves population health by improving the efficiency and productivity of health organizations. With better access to health information, care providers can evaluate how to best implement treatment programs for chronic disease, contagious infections, behavioral health, and other health conditions.
For example, if care providers discover a high rate of opioid use within a population, they can partner with a behavioral health clinic to implement a treatment program to serve those individuals and decrease overdose rates.
What Is Public Health?
Public health focuses on the collective work to “protect and improve the health of communities through policy recommendations, health education and outreach, and research for disease detection and injury prevention,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiologists, who are typically employed by state and local governments, track public health concerns and trends ranging from air pollution and natural disasters to birth defects and infectious diseases like COVID-19. They work with fellow government entities, hospitals, and the public to gather information to determine how a particular health problem was introduced and how it might be remedied.
“Public health is really about what’s happening on a collective basis in a given community: What are the health factors that are most prevalent and what do we do together to drive down the presence of certain conditions,” said Pamme Lyons-Taylor, Elevance Health’s chief community health officer.
What Is Community Health?
Community health is the collective level of overall health for a group of people who live, work, or play together. It looks at the broad health of a community, encompassing not only rates of disease or health conditions but also those social drivers that have such a big impact on our health. Social drivers include access to healthcare, transportation, nutritious food, behavioral health, emotional support, education, safe neighborhoods, and more. The choices made by everyone in a community — healthcare companies, community organizations, schools, and community, political and business leaders— play a part in the outcomes that maintain and improve community health.
Improving the Health of Communities
Creating healthier communities is one way to improve the health outcomes of individuals. Just as a local economy reflects the collective and individual vitality of the small and large businesses that operate there, a healthy community reflects and supports the health of its members.
Health companies play a critical role in improving health by working with their members, public health officials, and community partners to identify and address the physical, behavioral, and social drivers that impact health. Data-driven insights and collaboration are key tools in those efforts. “Our role as a health company means taking a holistic view of health to improve outcomes for the people — and the communities — we serve,” Lyons-Taylor said. “We’re partnering with those communities to improve overall health and connect people with the right physical, behavioral, and social health support. Our role as a steward and driver of community health is essential.”