Angela Fagerlin and Karyn Springer: What is ‘population health’ and why does Utah need it?

A whole-person approach leads to healthier communities and should be considered the future of comprehensive health care.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A survey is given to those being tested for Covid-19 at a the Wellness Bus mobile testing site in West Valley City, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

Population health is a relatively new term in the language of health care. It’s a health care approach focusing on conditions and factors that influence the health of specific and defined groups of patients. A key goal of population health is to help people maintain good health to prevent illness or disease before medical treatment is necessary. In our work at University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare, we know this approach can provide better care for Utahns.

Because everyone is different, different drugs, interventions and strategies work better for some people than others. To practice population health, providers must be aware of where and how patients live, what sort of lifestyle they have and what barriers to good health they may face. These and other social determinants, including race and ethnicity, greatly influence health. Knowing these determinants allows for a more tailored approach to the needs of each patient. Increased availability of health data across systems is also key to customized health care. Having more background information and health history expands engagement between patient and provider and means a more comprehensive understanding of a patient’s situation and needs.

Population health relies on meeting patients where they are, including reaching out to our most underserved community members. Both Intermountain Healthcare and U of U Health have developed ways to bring health care to where patients live. The U’s Wellness Bus travels to neighborhoods throughout Salt Lake County to offer free health screenings, coaching and education. Intermountain’s Mobile Mammography Service brings breast cancer screening close to where patients live and work across the northern half of the state.

Telehealth services offer care to patients who live in areas with limited traditional access and can be delivered directly to patients in their homes. Bringing health care services to where patients are provides preventive education that they may not otherwise receive and is one of the best ways to improve the health of communities.

Last year, University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare launched a partnership to develop a new medical education program at the U’s Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine. The Population Health Scholars Program is the first of its kind in the nation. This longitudinal program begins in medical school, continuing through residency and into employment. Scholars are trained in the principles of population health, specifically how to integrate a patient’s life circumstances, such as housing, nutrition, education and work opportunities, to guide treatment of physical and mental health needs to optimize health.

A core goal of the scholars program is getting more upstream in population health education so that when scholars finish school and residency, they are ready to incorporate their knowledge and valuable skills in population health concepts into their practices.

Success in caring for our communities will also require those already in residency programs and current practicing providers to understand the importance of population health and learn how to put these concepts into practice. We need to support them in providing a whole-person approach to health care that includes addressing social determinants and prevention.

While population health is still relatively new, it has enormous potential to improve the health of our communities throughout Utah. Inherently, it’s designed to prevent serious illness, but it will create more capacity for those needing treatment. Success will necessitate a coordinated approach by state leaders and legislators, community programs, health care systems, health insurance companies, academia and clinicians in developing the necessary education, access to health data and resources to address — and improve — social determinants.

Population health through its whole-person approach leads to healthier communities and should be considered the future of comprehensive health care.

Angela Fagerlin

Angela Fagerlin, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at University of Utah Health.

Angela Fagerlin

Karyn Springer, M.D., is the senior medical director of graduate medical education strategy for Intermountain Healthcare and chair of the Intermountain Utah Medical Group Board.