Population Health (PH) is a term that has become ingrained in the Healthcare Reform lexicon over the past decade. It’s one of those politically gravitational conveniences that allow candidates from different parties to embrace a common goal with little risk of being criticized for holding beliefs different than their opponent. And that is precisely because it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove someone believes in something that does not have a consistent and agreed upon definition.
Just What is Population Health?
What PH enjoys in broad political support it lacks in definitional credibility. A good treatise on variations of contemporary definitions can be found in Academy Health’s Population Health in the Affordable Care Act Era by Michael Stoto, Ph.D. Without wanting to deliberately adulterate that work, Stoto highlights conceptual commonalities and differences in definitions from several sources that I will try and very briefly summarize below.
A focus on health outcomes – the subjectivity of which notwithstanding – and the distribution of outcomes (i.e., how do outcomes vary across comparative stratifications, such as geographic residence, ethnicity, age, etc.)
The impetus of achieving healthier outcomes is through encouraging healthier lifestyles, better nutrition, preventative care, avoiding behavioral risks, etc.
Measurement of health status indicators as well as the factors that are correlated with those indicators (e.g., socioeconomic conditions, physical environments, childhood development, etc.)
Utilization of data and analytics to develop a conceptual framework for understanding and explaining differences in population health indicators – and how that knowledge impacts research agendas, resource allocations and public policy.
Often discussed (or confused, depends on your perspective) with public health, though the latter also typically connotes a governmental influence of some type (e.g., a municipal health department).
From a policy perspective, there are two ways to look at PH: altruistic and pragmatic. From an altruistic perspective policies that promise to improve population health are most often framed in cost—benefit analyses: the benefits, if achievable, are easy to agree upon (who doesn’t want to be healthier?). The ROI is the challenge and most often the subject of political contention.
From a pragmatic perspective – particularly as PH has been manifested in the Affordable Care Act – what we are really talking about is cost control. Healthier people demand less healthcare services. Individuals with chronic conditions that more effectively manage those conditions need less healthcare. Economics 101: if we can reduce demand while maintaining or increasing supply, costs should decrease.
Parallel to this latter perspective is the growing base of knowledge that indicates improving the quality of care can achieve both lower costs AND better care. So if population health is a vehicle through which quality can be improved, it benefits from that additional policy advocacy.
Population Health Perceptions
Population Health means different things to different people. A good part of that difference can be explained in the inherent subjectivity of the concept of health outcomes. Some other portion can be explained by academic exercises seeking to cut the Gordian Knot. Still another by political extrapolations that seek to gain favor by equating improved population health with an appreciative electorate.
Whatever the feasible explanation(s) may be, Population Health suffers from an identity crisis. Beyond just a definitional problem, however, it fundamentally lacks in having been able to achieve a shared understanding of its meaning and purpose at a level that resonates with the very “population” whose health is of concern. In short, PH could use a brand positioning strategy.
Perceptual Positioning of Population Health
One of my favorite books on branding is Brand: It Ain’t the Logo: It’s what people think of you™ by Ted Matthews. Matthews argues that,
“a brand is the sum total impression and memory of every remarkable, every so-so and every negative experience with any and all pieces of an organization. A brand is the personality of [that organization] . . . and is judged and assessed a value by everyone it touches, whether inside the [organization] or outside. These perceptions of value may, or may not, be what you want them to be. Which suggests a fact that may surprise you: your brand isn’t really yours (emphasis added). You don’t own it – all the people thinking about you do.”
It’s not a leap to borrow or migrate these concepts of perceptual brand positioning to PH. Many proponents of PH take an interventional approach as a means to advocacy. Their focus is on modifying individual behaviors, inducing health screening, creating artificial employment incentives and imposing restrictions and/or impositions on environmental elements. This is not a sustainable approach to PH brand positioning simply because it fails to recognize that the perception of PH is owned by the individual – and not the advocate.
What to do Differently
When I was giving presentations across the country a few years back on the newly passed Affordable Care Act, I made it a point to say that I believed if we were somehow successful in increasing access to healthcare services, in improving quality, in lowering costs, in enhancing efficiency and productivity – that none of that would matter long-term because the forecasted demand from an aging demographic would atomize those gains. The only escape from a tragic gap between demand for quality healthcare and the ability to meet that demand will come from lowering innate demand.
Population health, however one wants to define it, is therefore a critical component of any strategy that seeks to address the looming care gap. But the underlying concepts of what make improving population health mutually beneficial cannot be thrust upon individuals for their own good. Nobody ever bought a Macintosh computer because Steve Jobs told them they should. If you are an advocate of PH, then it’s time to start looking at how to perceptually position its brand benefits differently.
Look at the most valuable brands in the world, and look at how they were built: such as Apple, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, IBM, Google, Disney. Marketing and advertising played important roles, but it has ultimately been each organization’s ability to offer something of value to individuals that drove sustainable perceptions. What can be learned from the branding strategies of organizations like these that can turn the perceptual positioning of Population Health on its head to achieve the long-term benefits that we believe can be achieved?