Population Health Is Not Working

The Approach to Communicating with Patients Must Change
By Hilary Hatch

I hate shots. Every year when flu season rolls around, I think, “what’s in it for me?” The answer is, “it isn’t for me. It’s for the herd.” I am young and healthy enough that I am unlikely to die of the flu but I have children, older people and vulnerable patients I care about it, so I get a flu shot every year.
            This is true population health. I get a flu shot for the benefit of others. Population health has been extended to a much larger set of activities that have no communal benefit. One patient with diabetes doesn’t benefit from another getting a foot exam. (Mammograms, colonoscopies, no communal benefit. STD screening, on the other hand, fits in the category of true population health.)
            This distinction matters. Here’s why:

·         People are keenly aware of being told to do things that aren’t for their personal benefit.

·         People reject recommendations that don’t match their health needs.

·         People are much more likely to follow recommendations from people they trust.

·         Points 1 & 2 above undermine trust.


We all want better health in the population, but are we going about it in the right way?
            Population health puts people into categories by conditions (diabetes, hypertension, depression), age, lab results and medical billing data. These categories presume their own importance. When in fact, psychosocial, behavioral and environmental factors determine individual health far more. Patient goals, preferences and barriers to care tell us what stands between that patient and better health. Without this data, population health efforts are undermined.
            Here’s an example from my own practice as a psychologist. I learned that “depression” wasn’t a useful category except when I needed to bill with a diagnostic code to get paid. A person in mourning, a postpartum mom with catastrophic feelings, a socially isolated geriatric patient, a mid-career professional struggling with unmet ambitions, a sad teenager having a first psychotic episode or a disabled veteran unable to sustain relationships have almost nothing in common but all could be labeled as “depressed.” Standard recommendations for depression, especially medication, are useless in treatment planning as the root cause of ‘depression’ is rarely something medicine can treat.

Population health efforts are actually making us dumb, blind and deaf to the patient’s true health needs.

In a 15-minute visit, it’s a zero sum game. When the provider is pummeled with gaps in care alerts and practice guidelines, the more the provider attends to the EHR, the less they attend to, look at, listen to and learn from the patient. When the population health need gets attention, is it at the expense of the individual’s need? Care plans driven by population health diagnostic categories are more formulaic, symptom-focused and may ignore root causes. As such, they are less likely to be successful.

Non-compliance’ is an appropriate act of patient resistance to an inappropriate care plan.

When 50% of patients don’t adhere to medications or guidelines for screening tests, the “standard recommendations” are failing, not the patients. Resistance is the consumer voice telling us medications cost too much or that they secretly wonder if the medication is working. Resistance is a form of communication that needs to be welcome. Standard recommendations need to adjust. We need to stop blaming patients for non-compliance and stop pressuring providers to be enforcers.
            What if we turn the standard approach inside out and start by asking patients: “what are your health goals?” or “what is your biggest health concern?”
            If we allow people to build pathways to health, to choose their own adventure, at their own pace, we can prioritize steps to health at an achievable pace. Population health services like pharmacists, nutritionists, social workers and care managers can all be offered in response to patient needs.
            Technology can support this beautifully and take an enormous workload off providers. Through our work at Vital Score, we have directly observed hundreds of primary care visits. We use motivational indexing to capture and categorize people’s goals, needs and barriers to health and we responsively offer patient-driven pathways to health. Our results show that when people self-identify needs and self-refer to services, their participation rate increases up to 20x. People own their choices because their choices are personally driven for their own benefit. It’s not only better for workflow, it’s better for outcomes.
            I have come to the conclusion that population health will not succeed until it is driven from the ground up from patient needs. The top down approach is a Herculean effort without yet enough reward.


Hilary Hatch is the chief executive officer of Vital Score. A version of this article originally appeared on The Health Care Blog.