What is Population Health and How Does it Compare to Public Health?

population healthIn our Masters of Nursing, Nursing of Populations program, one of the fundamental starting points is discussing the definition of population health.   Many individuals incorrectly think that population health and public health are one in the same. While they are interrelated, there are key differences between the two.

Population Health versus Public Health

Kindig and Stoddart (2003), define population health as “an approach [that] focuses on interrelated conditions and factors that influence the health of populations over the life course, identifies systematic variations in their patterns of occurrence, and applies the resulting knowledge to develop and implement policies and actions to improve the health and well-being of those populations.”

They propose that population health is concerned with both the definition of measurement of health outcomes and the pattern of determinants.  Determinants include medical care, public health interventions, genetics, and individual behavior, along with components of the social (e.g., income, education, employment, culture) and physical (e.g., urban design, clean air, water) environments.

Public health, on the other hand, can be defined as what “we as a society do collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy” (Institute of Medicine, 1988). Federal and state public health policies and programs play an important role in the health of the overall population of a nation and its states; however, as noted in the definition above public health is not the same as population health.

IHI Triple AIM and Population Health

Most students don’t understand the differences between public health and population health. In fact, when the Masters of Nursing, Nursing of Populations program was first initiated they had a difficult time recruiting students.

That was until Berwick and colleagues (2008) identified “improving the health of populations” as one element in the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s (IHI) Triple Aim for improving the U.S. health care system.

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the University has more demand than capacity, resulting in students being turned away. Clinicians, nurses, and executives recognize the need for education and experience when addressing the health of populations.

Population Health Outcomes

Health care professionals partner with populations to improve the health of populations by promoting health, preventing disease, and addressing health inequities. Outcomes include:

  • Advocacy to decrease health disparities
  • Policy making to address health disparities
  • Improving health outcomes of populations in need
  • Implementing cost effective strategies to address health disparities
  • Leadership strategies to impact safety, cost, and clinical outcomes
  • Executing educational approaches to improve clinical decision making and evidence-based practice
  • Developing practice guidelines

How do you define population health? What other similarities or differences between population health and public health do you see?

Institute for Healthcare Improvement Triple Aim. Retrieved from http://www.ihi.org, 2013. Institute of Medicine. (1988).
The future of public health. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. Kindig, David & Stoddard, Greg. (2003). What is Public Health? American Journal of Public Health, 93(3): 380–383.

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