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What Is the Difference Between Population Health, Community Health and Public Health?

by Clive Riddle, February 12, 2016

What Is the Difference Between Population Health, Community Health and Public Health? That is the question asked in the ThoughtLeaders Corner in this month’s issue of Population Health News. Here’s what some population health experts had to share:

Garth Graham, M.D., MPH, President of Aetna Foundation says “throughout medical school and residency, I paid close attention to my mentors in their efforts to make an impact both on the individual patient and on the broader public health level to influence health outcomes in entire communities. Today, as a cardiologist and president of the Aetna Foundation, I work every day to follow in their footsteps by looking at three distinct areas: population health, community health and public health.  When talking about population health, we are describing health and healthcare outcomes that impact a specific group of people being tracked and managed for specified health conditions. For example, at the Aetna Foundation, we’re working to bridge the health divide by paying close attention to chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, that disproportionately affect African Americans.”

Graham continues: “Community health broadens the scope, going beyond traditional health and healthcare needs to factor in the social determinants of health, such as education, employment, public safety and more. In our work with communities, we know factors such as access to information and services can have a direct impact on community health. As we look at the broader tapestry of national and state indicators, we see public health unfold beyond a specific community or group. It is the 10,000-foot view that helps us define the health of an entire nation. At the Aetna Foundation, we know that where you live can make a dramatic impact on your health. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your zip code is a greater indicator of your health than your genetic code. As we work to improve health outcomes and close health divides for underserved communities in our nation, we can all contribute by sparking change—community by community, city block by city block. “ 

Alexis Pezzullo, Chief Growth Officer for DST Health Solutions offers this take: “One of the favorable consequences of the ACA’s passage has been the re-ignition of discussion around ways to enhance and sustain health in individuals, groups and populations. Stakeholders are thinking about and collaborating in various ways to improve health outcomes and address value-based utilization of healthcare resources. Not too surprisingly, the importance of public and community health efforts is becoming increasingly clear. Public health by definition is the science of protecting and improving health of entire populations, from neighborhoods to countries, through promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention and detection and control of infectious diseases.”

Pezzullo contrasts that “community health, on the other hand, is a field of public health centered on the study and enhancement of the health characteristics of biological communities. While the term can be broadly defined, community health tends to focus services, education and research on geographical areas with shared characteristics. Population health, meanwhile, is concerned with the distribution of health outcomes across a group of individuals. This field includes health outcomes, patterns of health determinants and policies and interventions that link the two. Improving ‘total’ population health requires partners across public health, healthcare organizations, community organizations and businesses. Today’s population health management necessitates innovative approaches that address the complexity involved in analyzing data, evaluating patient risk and effectively managing care. The cumulative value of these efforts has never been fully realized. As the healthcare industry seeks to optimize outcomes, changing strategies, capabilities and actions to leverage synergies across these health ecosystems is essential.            

Deborah Dorman-Rodriguez, Leader, Healthcare Practice Group, Freeborn & Peters LLP offers that “the terms population health, community health and public health are often used interchangeably even though they are somewhat distinct. Population health is now commonly used in the post-ACA environment in association with the Triple Aim of improving the quality of care, improving the health of populations and reducing the per capita cost of healthcare. David Kindig and Greg Stoddart first defined population health in 2003 as: ‘health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group.’ (Kindig D, Stoddart G. “What Is Population Health?” Am J Public Health. March 2003;93(3):380-383.)”

Dorman-Rodriguez goes on to say that “the definition did not include the cost or provider intervention aspects of healthcare. The evolution of the term over the last 10 to 12 years indicates there is not one specific definition that is universally recognized. It appears, however, that the concept of investment/cost and provider intervention/influence is likely to be included. In contrast, the terms public health and community health have traditionally meant a focus on the improved health of a population. The WHO defines public health broadly as ‘all organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health and prolong life among the population as a whole.’ The CDC Foundation defines public health as being ‘concerned with protecting the health of entire populations.’ Community health is often seen as a field within public health, focusing on the health of a particular population group that has common characteristics, such as culture, work, physical traits, geography or other demographics. All three terms are likely to evolve in their respective meanings given the current emphasis on improving healthcare outcomes.”  

Finally, Neil Smiley, CEO/Founder of Loopback Analytics has this to say: “Population health is a health improvement strategy for risk-based entities, such as managed care plans, self-insured employers and accountable care organizations that are financially responsible for clinical and economic outcomes of beneficiaries under their care. Population health competencies include analytics to proactively identify individuals with shared characteristics, such as chronic conditions, payer classifications, patient demographics and other risk factors. Once a population of interest has been identified, individuals are matched with interventions to manage health risk, with a feedback loop to measure clinical and economic efficacy. “

Smiley states that “community health is defined by local geography, such as a town, city or county. Communities typically include many risk-based entities, each operating their respective population health strategies. Whereas population health is often focused on clinical interventions, community health addresses non-clinical interventions, such as social services, transportation, housing and education provided by non-profits and community-based organizations. Public health spans both risk-based entities and communities with a focus on clinical research, health policy, regulations and quality and safety standards. Public health encompasses environmental factors that can impact the health of a population, such as infectious disease control (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), air and water quality (Environmental Protection Agency) and safety of the food supply (U.S. Food & Drug Administration). Ideally, population, community and public health initiatives work together to continuously improve healthcare delivery and outcomes. “

More information about Population Health News is available at

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