What Is Population Health? (+ Why It Matters)

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Population health is all about partnership between institutions and community resources to maximize health outcomes. Learn all you need to know about population health and why it’s important for a community to thrive.

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Population health is all about maximizing health outcomes in a community. Improving population health means connecting practice with policy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through non-traditional partnerships across sectors as wide-ranging as public health, academia, corporations, and government [1]. 

Population health is often confused with public health, which traditionally focuses on the way national or regional governments deal with the prevention and spread of harmful epidemics and environmental hazards. Both are concerned with the overall health of the general population, although population health tends to focus on a smaller, specific group within it.

In this article, you’ll learn about population health, why it matters, and how it’s different from public health.

What is population health?

Population health is the interdisciplinary approach to achieving positive health outcomes within a community. A community can refer to a nation, an ethnic group, a city, or something more specific, such as a group of disabled students.

Improving population health requires connecting practice to policy and improving health outcomes and the distribution of those health outcomes for a particular community of individuals. 

Health researchers proposed that the definition of population health be "the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group," and that policies and interventions are what link the outcomes and patterns of health determinants [2]. Health determinants (or factors) that affect these outcomes can include genetics, social environment (education, income, employment, culture), physical or natural environment (clean air and water, urban infrastructure and design), health care systems, and individual behavior [2]. 

Population health experts use data to understand how these factors impact health and health distribution, identifying specific needs so that the communities can address these concerns and ultimately improve their health outcomes. 

Why is population health important?

Population health is important because addressing entire populations at a macro level helps identify the structural inequities for law and policymakers so that efficiency and quality of care can be improved. Segmenting the population into groups with evolving needs streamlines and improves the overall distribution of health outcomes. 

The COVID-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst for pivoting to telemedicine and more integrated systems of digitized care [3]. New software systems were put in place, and data on communities could be used to innovate clunky processes that would support both in-person and remote health care. Population health can lead to a more resilient health care system, where policies actually contribute to positive health outcomes for a greater number of people within a community.

For example, value-based care has become one of the field’s most important contributions to health care. Health providers can work together to coordinate treatments so they can administer the best quality services. It also means the population can pay for it: Value-based care allows insurance reimbursements to place emphasis on quality of care, rather than quantity. Newer payment plans such as shared savings programs and integrated care help patients get the specific care they need without breaking the bank.

Learn more about value-based care

With the course Value-Based Care: Population Health from the University of Houston, you’ll learn about four critical areas of population health management: addressing behavioral and social determinants of health, the prevalence of chronic disease, attributes of an aging population, and key barriers of access to health care.

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What is the difference between population health and public health?

While population health and public health both advance the well-being and health of communities, there are subtle differences in their approach.

  • Population health deals with the health and health outcomes of a particular group of individuals, such as retired veterans. It focuses on how individuals within specific groups are treated, and how those health outcomes can improve in quality and efficacy. Researchers might evaluate how earning a lower income, attending private school, or having access to free insurance can affect that group’s health outcomes. 

  • Public health addresses more issues than population health. Public health experts and policymakers focus on promoting health and wellness across entire nations and groups of communities. Under public health, researchers and experts study and promote policies, health education, research (for disease prevention or environmental hazards), and behavioral changes (such as diet and hygiene). 

Careers in population health

Within population health, you can pursue a career in population health management. A population health manager focuses on improving a group’s health outcomes by monitoring individuals within that group based on their age, income, location, gender, and medical condition. Being able to collect, manage, and deeply analyze data is critical to population health management.

Because public health is a broad subject that covers population health and more, earning a master’s in public health (MPH) can be your gateway to a research-based or policymaking role. It is a reputable degree that can help you earn more money and advance in your career while making a positive impact in the world.

Read more: 7 Public Health Careers (+ How to Get Started)

Learn about health with Coursera

With strong similarities to population health, a master’s in public health is a respected degree that can open doors in your health-based career. Whether you are hoping to become a population health manager to link practice with policy or work in public policy for a non-profit organization, a public health master’s can be your key to improving health outcomes for citizens.

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Article sources

1. CDC. “What is Population Health?, https://www.cdc.gov/pophealthtraining/whatis.html.” Accessed August 17, 2022.

2. National Library of Medicine. “What Is Population Health?, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447747/.” Accessed August 17, 2022.

3. AJMC. “The Essential Role of Population Health During and Beyond COVID-19, https://www.ajmc.com/view/the-essential-role-of-population-health-during-and-beyond-covid-19.” Accessed August 17, 2022.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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