Entrance of University Hospital - Flickr

While there still may not be a consensus on the interpretation of the term “population health,” healthcare leaders in a George Washington University survey agreed that it is “an opportunity for health care systems, agencies and organizations to work together in order to improve the health outcomes of the communities they serve.” Defining it is one thing, but taking action to address population health presents the challenge of figuring out what role each system, agency and organization plays on its own and in collaboration with other entities to have a noticeable impact.

Taking action begins with the willingness to change perceptions from the past regarding hospitals, agencies, healthcare systems and community resources. According to a recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, hospitals can make their neighborhoods and communities healthier by addressing non-medical factors that contribute to population health. Despite arguments that population health depends on community factors outside the control of hospitals, Stuart Butler (senior fellow at the Brookings Institution) believes that hospitals are well positioned to help build healthy neighborhoods. A substantial number of hospitals have had ongoing collaborations with community resources. In fact, nonprofit hospitals are even required to regularly evaluate their communities’ health needs and how these hospitals plan to address the needs.

Butler points out that hospitals are frequently seen as the last resort in their communities, because they are often the place people go when everything else fails. If one adopts a different perspective, hospitals actually have great potential to improve the general health of the community on the front end. One way is to integrate the basic needs of patients into care delivery. Contra Costa Medical Center found a way to do this by partnering with Health Leads. In this partnership, a Health Leads help desk is placed at the medical center in order to direct patients to resources that affect health (e.g., food and housing).

In order to enable hospitals to serve in this capacity, Butler recommends that the healthcare industry:

  • Ease the process of information-sharing to help government agencies, hospitals and community institutions coordinate
  • Standardize the way social and economic benefits of hospital efforts are measured to ensure efficiency
  • Adjust government budgets and payment systems toward the goal of a joint return on investment when community benefit is achieved
  • Explore new ways to finance community health improvements that don’t generate hospital revenue

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has offered a way to address financing community health improvements. It announced this month that it will provide $157 million to fund a new Accountable Health Communities model that will offer the financial resources for up to 44 bridge organizations to conduct screenings and refer Medicare and Medicaid recipients to clinical and community services. Hospitals as well as community-based organizations can apply for this funding.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Entrance of the University Hospital, Flickr)