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Population Health 'Very Important' Say Providers, Despite Barriers

Analysis  |  By Jonathan Bees  
   August 23, 2018

Given the importance of developing competencies and investments in population health, it is somewhat surprising that the industry isn't further along in this mission.

If there is one thing that nearly all providers agree about regarding population health, it's the importance of improving their organizations' ability to manage the health of defined populations.

In the 2018 HealthLeaders Media Population Health Survey, for example, 87% of respondents say that improving their organization's ability to manage the health of a defined population is very important, indicating that population health is a top priority for nearly all providers.

Note that only 1% say that this is somewhat unimportant, and only 1% say that this is not at all important.

However, given the importance of developing competencies in population health and the resources being invested in its ongoing development, it is somewhat surprising that the industry isn't further along in this mission.

One barometer of progress is net patient revenue from population health activities, which appears to have plateaued.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents say that 25% of more of their organization's net patient revenue is attributed to risk-based population health management activities, down two percentage points from 40% in last year’s survey.

In addition, there are fewer respondents dabbling in population health activities at more modest levels. For example, in this year’s survey, 23% of respondents say that this activity represents less than 10% of net patient revenue, down 11 percentage points from 34% in last year’s survey.

Overall, survey results suggest that respondents remain committed to becoming more involved in risk-based population health activities.

But this undertaking is not for the faint of heart—after making significant investments in people, infrastructure, and IT, providers face real consequences if they misjudge their capabilities or lack insight into the quality of their risk pool.

Population health barriers

Respondents say that the top barrier to successfully deploying population health programs is up-front funding for care management, IT, and infrastructure (51%), an indication that getting the financial aspects of population health right is just as important as the clinical considerations.

Rounding out the top three barriers are engaging patients in their own care (45%), and getting meaningful data into providers' hands (33%).

Note that one of the reasons that respondents are so concerned about up-front investments in infrastructure is uncertainty regarding risk-based reimbursement models—they must make a leap of faith that finances will work out.

This is the reason many are investing in analytics, with the hope that analytics will provide data to guide strategy, and ultimately help improve clinical outcomes and reduce costs.

"Providers are really interested in minimizing costs, length of stay, and readmissions because of what CMS has done," says Frank E. Belsito, DO, MMM, chief physician executive, and chief population health officer at Metro Health – University of Michigan Health.

Based in Wyoming, Michigan, and affiliated with University of Michigan Health, Metro Health is an integrated health system that features a 208-bed acute care hospital and numerous outpatient locations throughout western Michigan.

"But the big challenge is the financial piece, where we really struggle to know what it actually costs us to deliver care," he says.

Jonathan Bees is a research analyst for HealthLeaders.

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