Population Health Tech Will Lag Until Standards Emerge

There’s little doubt that healthcare organizations will continue to partner up with peers and acquire physician practices. The forces that drive healthcare network development are only intensifying as time goes by, particularly as the drive toward value-based payment moves ahead. But there’s a lot more to making such deals work than a handshake and a check. To make these deals work, it’s critical that networks become experts at population health management — and unfortunately, that’s going to be tough.

While merging health systems into ACOs or acquiring referring physicians has merit, this strategy won’t grow the steadily dropping pace of hospital admissions, notes William Faber, M.D., senior vice president of the GE Healthcare Camden Group. “Though clinically integrated networks do enlarge the patient base, one of their aims is also to reduce the percentage of admissions from that base,” making it unlikely that the networks will grow admissions, he points out.

To make a clinically integrated network successful, it certainly helps to take the initiative – to get to market more quickly than competitors – and to do a better job of controlling costs of care and demonstrating higher quality and service. Where things get stickier, however, is in managing that care across a large group. “The creation of a clinically integrated network must not be just a marketing or physician alignment strategy – it must truly enable effective population health management,” he writes.

And this, I’d argue, is where things get very tricky. Well, judge for yourself, but I’d argue that the HIT industry is ill-equipped to support these goals. Despite many years of paper-chart experimentation with population health, and several with population health technology, my sense is that the tech is far behind what it needs to be. Health IT vendors won’t get far until providers do a better job of defining what they need.

A different mindset

The truth is, this generation of EMRs is designed to track individual patients across an experience of care. While CIOs can add a layer of analytics technology to the mix, that is a far cry from creating tools that natively track population health trends. Looking at populations is simply a different mindset.

Admittedly, vendors will tell you that they’ve got the problem licked, but if they were completely candid many would have to admit that their products aren’t mature yet. Until someone creates an EMR or other basic tool which is designed, at its core, to track group health trends, I foresee more half-baked hacks than results.

What’s more, I doubt the health IT business will be able to help until it has at least an informal standard to which such products must adhere. Should such tools measure costs of care by diagnosis code? Compare such costs to national standards? Highlight patients in outpatient settings whose tests or exams suggest a crisis is about to happen? If so, which settings, and what cutoffs should be tracked for test scores? Does such a system need natural language processing to scour physician notes for trigger words, and if so which ones?

Without a doubt, medical and business executives leading integrated networks will come together and develop more answers to these questions. But until they do, health IT vendors won’t be able to help much with the population health challenge.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.