Has COVID shifted how you define population health?

On Wednesday, March 31st, Bluetree, a Tegria company, hosted a virtual panel on healthcare technology, interoperability, and population health in a post-COVID world. We sat down with panelists and population health experts Steven R. Peskin, M.D. and Chirag Patel, M.D. to address some key questions.

Dr. Peskin:

Population health has always had certain overarching goals: achieving better outcomes, increasing quality, improving patient experience, and creating efficiencies to manage costs. These have not changed in a post-COVID world.

What has changed is the use of digital health and virtual visits and the ways patients access healthcare. So while the pandemic has accentuated the use of virtual care and digital health, it hasn’t changed the overarching goals of population health.

Dr. Patel:

Historically, we thought about population health as just health outcomes, but now we’ve pivoted our thinking to include access to basic human services. A person’s ability to access electricity, water, and broadband could be as important as finding the nearest hospital. Access to basic health care services can determine whether someone can easily schedule a vaccine appointment and get to the appointment location, for example. We think about all of those things now.

Which lessons from COVID should leaders keep in mind when thinking about population health?

Dr. Peskin:

One important lesson is the ability to be nimble in response to any public crisis. In this case, the current health crisis happened to be a pandemic. One might imagine other scenarios related to global climate change or other infectious diseases in which we, as healthcare professionals, would need to have a rapid response. There is certainly a need to deploy or utilize virtual technology in order to do that.

And there have also been lessons around the deployment of the COVID vaccine. There have been good examples, but there have also been some challenges.

Dr. Patel:

There have been several. First, when making decisions, think about the unintended consequences.  When you prioritize one initiative or one group of people, are you inadvertently decreasing access to resources for another group? I think that’s really important.

The second is the opportunity to start thinking about leveraging technology data in a more robust fashion, not just when it’s convenient, but really to help guide decisions.

The third lesson is the importance of partnerships. We realized that community-based partnerships, partnerships with Fortune 500 companies, and partnerships with the leaders of horizontally integrated organizations are really paramount to scale any population health initiative.

The COVID pandemic uncovered a number of disparities in healthcare and highlighted the role of social determinants of health. How can population health leaders use this knowledge to evolve their population health strategy?

Dr. Peskin:

Issues around health literacy, lack of access to transportation, adequate food, or behavioral services existed before COVID and still exist, so we had started on a path of addressing the social determinants of health four or so years ago and well before COVID.

Organizations like Horizon BCBSNJ health systems, and for that matter, state and local governments, will benefit from addressing health literacy, health disparities, and other social drivers.

Dr. Patel:

There are definitely three that come right to mind. For me, integrated behavioral health is really important. The pandemic has uncovered a lot of inequity and undiagnosed, undertreated behavioral health issues.

The second one is that food insecurity is actually a real problem in this country. Food insecurity relates to the ability to access healthy food and make healthy choices. This is not just a problem in certain areas; it’s everywhere.

The third thing is really understanding healthcare literacy. We see this around understanding the science when it comes to wearing masks and vaccines. Community health interventions and really raising the healthcare literacy of our US population, I think, have tremendous potential for empowering people to make their own decisions around healthcare.

Looking forward, how will technology (like Digital Front Door, virtual assistants, remote monitoring, etc.) help increase patient engagement and satisfaction and contribute to a successful population health strategy?

Dr. Peskin:

Technologies like Digital Front Door, virtual care, and remote patient monitoring enhance and complement other areas of fast-moving science and technology, like next-generation sequencing, biomarkers for disease, and molecular biology.  Balancing this combination of biology and computational sciences without overwhelming people with messages that get ignored will continue to be important. So matching the digital domain of health and patient engagement with the right kind of behavioral economics and behavioral science is what we need to further evaluate.

Dr. Patel:

I think there are two things, right? It’s patient activation, and then patient engagement. How do we activate an unengaged patient to become engaged? And then how do we, in the same way, keep them engaged? We see all these apps such as Calm and Headspace, and they use the pandemic as an opportunity to activate their users, and then keep them engaged with a broad-based library or suite of products, and I think that is the kind of framework that needs to be used. We may want to engage a whole host of people, but we have to activate them first, pique their interest, and then rope them in, if you will. And I think it’ll be very important to see how we leverage technology between activating and engaging through the pandemic and beyond.

Capabilities mentioned here are now carried forward with Tegria.