The 4 Pop Health Lessons of 2017

Ryan Black

Before there can be patient centricity, there must be a high standard of care across larger patient populations.

Population health is either a vague concept or a concrete goal, depending on who is speaking about it. Although healthcare is striving towards patient centricity, there needs to be a concerted effort to raise the care standards for all patients in a health system before it can start to individually tailor treatment. Here are the 4 best lessons Healthcare Analytics News has published about population health in 2017.

Despite Best Intentions, Pop Health Efforts Could Fail

Writing for Healthcare Analytics News™ in February, John Gallagher laid out 3 reasons why population health efforts may be stunted. Insufficient data quality and access can be a barrier to many of the current initiatives, with siloing and noncommunicative approaches preventing true horizontal pop health improvements.

The current payment models, and the shift to value-based care, could also be a sore spot. “In theory, this shift encourages collaboration; outcome-based payments; and a new benefit design to align providers, members, employers and payers,” Gallagher, an innovation consultant at IBM Watson Health subsidiary Simpler Consulting, wrote. Failure to fulfill the shift, or lack of incentive to complete it, may threaten population health.

Lack of ownership could be a key issue as well. With data transfer fragmented, a health system doesn’t have means of verifying how a patients’ care is continuing after they leave, and that issue is becoming pronounced as providers consolidate. If a health system purchases a primary care network, they will acquire elderly patients, but they may not have their own hospice agency or rehabilitation facilities.

“Once systems understand the entire care continuum, and their role in each, then they can move toward a coordinated care model to foster communication across departments, specialties and practices,” Gallagher wrote.

Hospital Communications Need to be Improved

Paging is a near-constant in hospitals, and improved communications technologies have not necessarily led to improved communications. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that standardization and understandability are lacking in text pages, and that they are often inefficient.

“Often, lack of clarity in text page messages introduced potential for delays or lack of understanding among team members,” the authors wrote. Text paging “has significant limitations for real-time communication in acute-care settings.”

In an accompanying letter, 2 researchers compared the new text paging systems in place to “paving cowpaths.” There was some positivity, though: as a new generation of medical professionals grows up with technologies like Snapchat and voice technologies like Amazon’s Alexa, they should become more comfortable and capable with new-age communications tech. “Spoken microcommunications may soon be interpreted understood, and transformed even before they reach their recipient,” they suggested.

Language Will Increasingly be an Element of Population Health

The popular medical social network Doximity has some unique research capabilities. With over 600,000 medical professional enrolled, it has the ability to run large studies specifically related to physician experiences. In October, the company released a report on the disparities between languages spoken in a given area and the availability of doctors who speak those languages.

“We did find a couple of cities where the alignment between physicians and patients on a proportionate level were pretty close,” Joel Davis, Doximity’s vice president of products and analytics, told Healthcare Analytics News™.

Washington, DC, has among the greatest disparities, Davis said, and Louisville, Kentucky; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Baltimore, Maryland; and Seattle, Washington, trailed close behind. Fortunately, more doctors have access to translators now, and access continues to improve as telehealth translation spreads.

“Physician training could include more training in particular languages, specifically the ones where there are those disparities,” Davis added.

Smart Hospitals are Coming Sooner Rather than Later

The idea of a “smart hospital” has been around for some time, but as technology develops, the picture of what they will look like continues to grow clearer. The cost of cloud computing is on a steep decline and the capabilities of connected devices are improving. A recent report from Frost & Sullivan estimated that 10% of hospitals will become, or take steps towards becoming, smart hospitals by 2025, and the combined analytics and cloud computing market for healthcare will be $11 billion next year.

The report broke fledgling smart hospitals down into two groups: "greenfields", which are entirely new or rehabbed facilities built specifically with the intent of being a smart hospital, or "brownfields", which are older hospitals that are updated to become smarter.

Of course, with greater connectivity there is greater risk. More devices humming together on a network that carries valuable patient information can mean more access points for potential bad actors, a consideration that hospitals must hold dear in their cybersecurity protocols.