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Population Health Pays Off

Michele Wilson for HealthLeaders Media, January 5, 2012
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The three healthcare leaders who commented for this article—Rice; George Isham, MD, chief health officer at HealthPartners based in Bloomington, MN; and Pete Knox, executive vice president and chief learning and innovation officer at Bellin Health Care Systems in Green Bay, WI—all say that population health has gained footing at their organizations. They see it as the direction the field is moving, particularly once accountable care organizations take hold and hospitals have greater responsibility for a person’s overall health.

An integrated model

The population health model does not center on the physician treating a patient’s single, acute episode, Rice says. “We have a team of resources,” she adds. “It’s an integrated model that focuses on behavior and behavioral change. Not only do patients get access to medical care and medication, but we’re also dealing with foods that they eat.”

Beyond this approach to the individual patient, the model focuses on keeping entire groups healthy, forcing hospitals to partner—sometimes with other hospitals, often with employers or other groups within the community—rather than remaining as silos.

Isham cites the triple aim the Institute for Healthcare Improvement established in 2008: to improve the care experience for the individual, improve the health of entire populations, and cut per capita costs. “That strategy, pushed out to the country,” Isham says, “will have a lot of hospitals and boards thinking about how they can relate to those three major objectives. It gives them an opportunity to think differently.”

At Bellin, an integrated delivery system that includes the 167-bed Bellin Hospital, that very notion led to an ambitious mission: helping make the region’s 600,000 people the healthiest in the nation. The team there created a visual aid—six rings around a central one, with determinants of health driving through the rings on the left, all of it pointing to the triple aim on the right—to explain how the two-hospital system could meet its goal without physically treating every single person. “This model is what we call a series of rings of influence,” Knox says. “The closer to the center, we believe the more influence we have. As we go out in the rings, we need to participate and be involved and be active, but our influence is less.”

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