Published on Tuesday, August 29, 2017
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of CONSULT, UMMC's monthly electronic newsletter. To have CONSULT, and more stories like this, delivered directly to your inbox, click here to subscribe.
The John D. Bower School of Population Health at the University of Mississippi Medical Center is preparing its students to answer some of the most challenging, complex questions in health and health care.
Meanwhile, the general public has its own question: What is population health, anyway?
“Population health is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to prevent and treat diseases by keeping people healthy,” said Dr. Bettina Beech, professor of population health science and founding dean of the school. “It seeks to address the multiple factors that impact the health of individuals and communities.”
Classes commenced Aug. 14 at UMMC’s newest school, only the third of its kind in the United States.
“To do population health, you need multiple skill sets,” Beech said, citing the importance of a team science approach. As a systems science, population health practitioners rely on and combine social, political, economic and natural sciences to address health inequalities.
With this broad lens, population health can see the forest for the trees.
“In a traditional health care model, physicians think about health outcomes in terms of individual patients,” Beech said. Population health considers the aggregate outcome within a community, including those who access physicians and those without access.
For those unfamiliar with the field, there may be uncertainty regarding the difference between public health and population health. The distinction is in the approach.
“Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities in which they live,” Beech said. In the United States, government agencies practice public health by tracking disease outbreaks, promoting vaccination and encouraging healthy behaviors. It is an essential part of society’s efforts to improve health.
However, there’s no vaccine for diabetes. A person can’t prevent heart disease through diet and exercise if they can’t afford healthy food or find a safe place to walk. Health is influenced by more than genes and behavior. Income, education, living conditions and insurance coverage can affect one’s ability to stay healthy or seek care when needed.
Addressing these determinants of health – the external factors that make populations more or less susceptible to sickness – that may fall outside the influence of public health programs lies at the core of population health.
“Population health builds upon and extends this work by addressing the factors that contribute to health and disease within defined groups,” Beech said. In addition, it addresses the needs of particular subpopulations and emphasizes the value of care a health system provides, rather than the volume.
Population health looks for ways to break down the barriers to good health through multiple spheres of influence, including families, religious groups, community organizations and health centers.
Beech said one example of population health success is the Diabetes Prevention Program, a clinical trial that compared use of the medication metformin and lifestyle management. When researchers discovered the latter was more effective, groups translated this intervention into an approach that non-experts could implement in their communities. The most successful implementation has been in YMCA clubs, which have helped thousands of people decrease their risk for type 2 diabetes, according to the organization.
At UMMC, providers and researchers can begin to test and design their own approaches to improving health using multiple resources.
“We now have the tools available to look at real-time panels of patients at a population level, such as an enterprise data warehouse and electronic health records,” Beech said. Telehealth is also a significant resource for providing care to underserved populations in Mississippi, she said.
These resources allow population health scientists to expand beyond using geography as the defining factor for a population. Now, a population can be easily delineated by age, race, socioeconomic status or other characteristic.
With this ever-growing sea of information, researchers need new ways to discover, parse, analyze and implement data. That’s why the School of Population Health’s first fully functional department is dedicated to data science. It’s among the first in the country, said department chair Dr. Michael Griswold.
“Population health is a system we can use to make decisions in order to improve health,” Griswold said. “With data science, we extract information and turn vast amounts of data into actionable evidence.”
The inaugural class has five students pursuing a Ph.D. in biostatistics and data science. As the school expands, the Department of Population Health Science and the Department of Health Care Economics also will offer graduate degree programs. The Department of Preventive Medicine also is preparing to offer a medical residency.
While the term may be unfamiliar to some, “population health science is an old field,” Beech said. What’s new, she said, is its application to health care as population health management. Population health management is concerned with improving patient care and outcomes and decreasing costs, also known as the “Triple Aim.”
“UMMC is taking a proactive approach and leading the nation in preparing for 21st Century health care,” Beech said of the school’s opening. “We are developing a creative, innovative model to address health and health care.”
To learn more about the John D. Bower School of Population health, watch the video below.
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