From COVID to cancer, a variety of health concerns loom large and threaten to shorten lifespans and limit quality of life. These issues are best addressed by skilled public health professionals, who apply research-backed strategies to improve access to health services and advocate for community-centric policies.

Population health plays an increasingly vital role in this effort,. and can play heavily into everything from health care systems management to chronic illness prevention.

To clarify these important concepts, we’re diving into what population health involves, how it's related to public health, and why both are important. We will also provide insight into the expanding role of health data analysis and the value of developing these skills while pursuing a master’s degree in public health.

What Is Population Health?

It is impossible to truly understand population health without first developing a strong grasp of public health. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides a simple but powerful description: "Public health aims to provide maximum benefit for the largest number of people."

Population health instead focuses on the health status and health outcomes within a specific group of people. The term 'population' refers to groups of patients linked by defined similarities, such as their health diagnoses, geographic location, or health care provider.

Historical Context of Population Health

While the concept of public health dates back millennia, population health as a practice represents a far more recent development. The term was coined by Robert Evans and Greg Stoddart in 1990. Stoddart later worked with David Kindig to develop a more targeted use of the term as "the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group."

Since then, the concept of population health has expanded in vital ways, used by social scientists and medical practitioners. In  , the population in question often involves groups of patients, while social science now emphasizes the "primal role of factors outside the traditional biomedical model."

Key Components of Population Health

Public health is a multifaceted concept that references the many factors that can play into health and well-being. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) references 10 Essential Public Health Services (EPHS) that all communities must implement and maintain to promote positive health outcomes.

As CDC resources reveal, EPHS strives to "actively promote policies, systems, and overall community conditions" and also, "remove systemic and structural barriers that have resulted in health inequities."

Population health involves understanding and addressing the diverse factors that influence health outcomes across different populations. Unlike the broad scope of public health, population health zeroes in on targeted interventions tailored to specific communities or population groups. This approach considers a range of determinants, including social, economic, environmental, and behavioral factors, that affect the health of these groups.

The essential public health services identified by the CDC are:

  1. Assess and monitor. Public health improvements are not possible unless there is a clear understanding of where deficits exist and to what extent they are problematic. As such, health data must be collected and analyzed continually, with data sharing strongly encouraged.
  2. Investigate and diagnose. Real-time monitoring and epidemiological identification allow communities to swiftly respond to acute health concerns. Rapid screening capabilities are essential, with data ideally gathered from a variety of real-time sources.
  3. Communicate effectively. Once health concerns are understood, these findings should be shared via social media, mass media and other channels. Messaging must be "culturally and linguistically appropriate" based on the makeup of the community in question. Influencers and stakeholders can play a valuable role in crafting and sharing messages that resonate.
  4. Strengthen and support communities. From transportation to housing, a variety of agencies should form coalitions that recognize the multifaceted and holistic nature of modern health issues. These partnerships can be a valuable source of insights but must be continually nurtured.
  5. Create and implement policies. As we'll discuss in more detail below, public policies set the foundation for improving access to necessary services. These policies should be examined and improved over time to correct previous injustices.
  6. Use regulatory actions. Once policies have been established, they should be applied and enforced equitably. This means different things in different contexts; enforcing sanitary codes, for example, or following up when preventable injuries are revealed in occupational settings.
  7. Ensure equitable access. All individuals deserve access to high-quality, cost-effective care, along with social services that safeguard and promote health at the community level. Health diversity systems must be engaged to address gaps in care or other barriers.
  8. Build a skilled public health workforce. It takes a sizable and well-trained public health workforce to achieve the outcomes highlighted above. Priorities include comprehensive skill development and a culture of lifelong learning.
  9. Improve and innovate public health functions. Ongoing research can contribute greatly to the "evidence base of effective public health practice." A blend of qualitative and quantitative findings can inform decision-making and help spur much-needed innovation.
  10. Build a strong organizational infrastructure. A variety of infrastructures support the public health system. Across these organizations, resources must be allocated and utilized effectively. Accountability, transparency, and inclusivity are essential.

Role of Data in Population Health

Data plays a central role in advancing population health initiatives, enabling the identification of health disparities, the tailoring of interventions to specific groups, and the measurement of outcomes to inform future efforts. Population health relies on the detailed analysis of health data to understand the complex interplay of factors that influence health outcomes for different populations. Health care data analytics are critical for extracting insights from data, identifying trends, and evaluating the impact of interventions.

In population health, data analytics extend beyond traditional health care settings, encompassing a wide range of determinants including socioeconomic status, education, environment, and lifestyle factors. By integrating data from these diverse sources, population health professionals can develop a comprehensive understanding of health challenges and opportunities within specific populations, thereby informing targeted, effective interventions.

Moreover, the use of predictive analytics in population health is growing, allowing for the anticipation of health trends and the proactive management of health risks. This forward-looking approach enables health care providers and public health officials to allocate resources more efficiently and implement preventative measures tailored to the needs of specific populations.

Through the strategic use of data, population health initiatives can achieve their goal of improving health outcomes and reducing disparities, demonstrating the crucial role of data-driven decision-making in addressing the complex health challenges faced by diverse populations.

Challenges in Population Health

Despite advancements in technology and developments in the medical world, population health faces significant challenges, which include:

  • Health disparities. Population health researchers recognize that huge disparities exist based on race, income, gender, sexual orientation and geographic location. A useful example highlighted by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is that those living in rural areas are more likely to die as a result of cancer or heart disease. Similarly, people of color more frequently suffer alarming health complications in pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum.
  • Chronic diseases. While exciting advancements have all but eradicated many diseases that were once deadly (and in doing so, greatly extended life expectancy across the globe), chronic concerns are increasingly common and, in many ways, more difficult to address. From heart disease to diabetes, these health issues cause significant suffering and can also increase susceptibility to many acute conditions.
  • Funding limitations. Public health agencies have long struggled to secure sufficient funding, a problem that has only gotten worse with time. A concerning report from the Trust for America's Health explains, "Decades of underfunding have left the nation’s public health system ill-equipped to protect the health of Americans."

Population Health Policies and Administration

Public policy can provide a powerful blueprint to help drive improvements in health and well-being across communities. Because legislators often struggle to recognize the long-term value of these solutions, there is a clear need for public health advocates committed to strengthening the impact of local health departments and agencies.

Public health advocates are determined to improve access to federal funding and help legislators pass laws that protect the public from significant health hazards. There is also a public element necessary to ensure that proper licensing and credentialing are promoted and enforced across the health care workforce. Furthermore, as the EPHS reveals, public advocacy and legislative efforts may involve "health considerations in laws from other sectors," such as zoning.

Career Opportunities in Population Health

Population health can form the basis of a rewarding career path. No two roles in population health are identical; a lot depends on the unique needs of the community in question and the resources available to tackle these challenges. Compelling career opportunities include:

  • Community health specialist. Working closely with specific demographic groups or within clearly defined geographic locations, community health specialists develop a thorough understanding of the communities they serve and the unique challenges those communities face.
  • Public health analyst. Sometimes referred to as population health analysts, these skilled professionals collect and analyze data related to various facets of public health, such as substance abuse or environmental hazards. Through their research on existing issues and related programs or policies, they can make data-backed recommendations for where and how to improve.
  • Epidemiologist. As investigators focused on the causes of (and factors that exacerbate) disease, epidemiologists advocate for protective policies and educate the public about health risks. From researchers to program coordinators, it takes many skilled professionals to develop programs and projects, collect data, perform surveillance reports and convey findings to leaders and the public.
  • Public health manager. As the administrative backbone of health services, public health management strives to streamline health-related systems while ensuring the optimal use of potentially limited resources.

The Future of Population Health

Challenges abound, but a bright future is within reach for population health as a practice and as a career track. Many of the most exciting opportunities relate to the rise of health data analysis, including an increased emphasis on predictive analytics. These data-driven strategies allow public health agencies to do more with less and can provide evidence-backed support to drive effective health policy implementation.

Beyond technology, future trends in public health will largely center around efforts to boost equitable care and services, as evidenced by the central goals of Healthy People 2030 to "Eliminate health disparities, achieve health equity, and attain health literacy to improve the health and well-being of all." These efforts will call for evidence-based interventions, including the use of data-driven strategies to track health disparities.

Learn More, Today

Are you passionate about public health and eager to make a difference? Comprehensive education is the first step to a successful career. Given the increasing reliance on data-informed solutions in health services administration, it's clear that a graduate-level education is critical.

University of Minnesota online master of public health degree programs meet the unique needs of today's busy public health professionals. Contact us today to learn more about these graduate programs and the role they could play in shaping your public health career.

We also offer an Executive Master of Healthcare Administration program, which can help you elevate your health care leadership journey.