What Is Population Health?


Illustration of a jogging man surrounded by different icons that factor into the answer to the question: What is population health?

Most simply put, population health refers to the health outcomes of a defined group of people. More specifically, it includes how outcomes are distributed within the group. Massive data sets for large groups can average out in ways that obscure the health disparities within a subgroup. Population health aims to ensure that no subgroup is overlooked.

Focusing on a specific set of people—whether defined by their surroundings, race, income, gender, occupation or some other factor—allows professionals to identify, and potentially eliminate, health disparities.

For example, population health professionals might look at a ZIP code and study any differences in vaccination rates within that area. They could study respiratory illnesses among people who live with a smoker vs. people who do not. Or compare maternal mortality rates for African-American and white mothers.

Those findings open the door to questioning the status quo, changing policies and studying other interventions. The key question: How do we improve health for all? It’s not an entirely selfless proposition—it benefits the community as a whole if all of its members are as healthy as possible.

Population health professionals are people-focused. They customize their approach so that practices and policies dovetail, bringing about change. That may mean utilizing nontraditional partnerships and connecting different sections of the community: public health, industry, academia, health care and local government entities.

Comparisons of disease outbreaks or health outcomes among individuals in different categories can help influence financial decisions, logistics and policy matters. There is a heavy toll on the economy when all members of a population aren’t healthy.

A population’s health rests on many factors. These include what are known as the social determinants of health:

  • Economic Stability
  • Education Access and Quality
  • Health Care Access and Quality
  • Neighborhood and Built Environment
  • Social and Community Context

Strategies to improve health within populations include:

  • Coordinating interventions with medical centers, community stakeholders and other important agencies.
  • Making paths to preventive care more available.
  • Providing care that is both culturally and linguistically appropriate.
  • Broadening access to healthy food and fitness opportunities.

How Does Population Health Differ from Community Health?

You might also have heard of community health, which falls under the broader discipline of public health. The difference between population health and community health is in the name. Community health refers to efforts to make improvements in a geographically or culturally defined area.

Members of these communities are usually the ones helping to drive change. And an improvement might be the passage of a new law or the opening of a new store. Success isn’t necessarily tied to direct medical intervention.

Meanwhile, population health concerns itself with outcomes among similar people across an entire population. Think of two people, living in different countries, who are both 60 years old and have the same high level of cholesterol. The health events one experiences might be extremely relevant to the other, even though they are unrelated and do not share a community.

Education Opportunities in Public Health

Want to delve deeper into public health and discover how to build a career in the field? Elmhurst University’s Master of Public Health program prepares you to take on complex challenges that affect the people living in your community and around the globe.

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