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A toolkit for a healthier population

“What leads to healthier people?” asks John Auerbach, Distinguished Professor of Practice and director of the Institute of Urban Health Research and Practice in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “It’s not just the care they get from doctor,” he says, “but their lifestyle choices and the environment where they live and work.”

These factors, Auerbach explains, are used to build population-based health metrics. And these metrics, he says, are essential tools that can be used to treat patients, establish preventive care measures, and save big healthcare dollars.

“When you create population-based metrics, you’re not just looking at how you treat a patient who’s suffered a heart attack,” Auerbach says. “You’re also monitoring the myriad environmental aspects that impact the patient’s health.”

Auerbach is the principal investigator on a grant Northeastern recently received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted solely the public health. The grant—which dovetails with Northeastern’s commitment to pursuing use-inspired research in health, one of the university’s core research themes—will be used to identify a universal set of population-based health metrics and then integrate them into a toolkit. The toolkit will be used by healthcare organizations to implement payment reform and other measures aimed at improving patient care and lowering costs.

John Auerbach, Distinguished Professor of Practice and director of the Institute of Urban Health Research and Practice in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, is the principal investigator on a grant Northeastern recently received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted solely the public health. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

John Auerbach, Distinguished Professor of Practice and director of the Institute of Urban Health Research and Practice in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, is the principal investigator on a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted solely the public health. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The healthcare industry has continued to focus on ways to improve current payment structures as President Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act and other elements of healthcare reform go into effect. Global payments, in which healthcare providers receive large lump sums from payers to cover the expected costs of care, have been put in place to help the healthcare industry transition away from the traditional pay-for-service model. Supporters say global payments incentivize the healthcare industry to coordinate and deliver efficient and effective care, particularly through preventative care.

The idea is that access to population-based health metrics, which link patients’ clinical experiences with the broader environmental factors in their communities, would help insurers make decisions that emphasize preventative care and avoid unnecessary, costly medical tests.

Auerbach says the healthcare industry is eager to start working within an accepted framework to measure providers’ ability to improve population health. While there are many meaningful efforts aimed at identifying evidence-based population health indicators—the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are but two—no one has yet created a consolidated and readily accessible list of such metrics. That’s where Auerbach’s group comes in.

Last month, his team began facilitating discussions with key organizations and individuals currently working on population health measures in an effort to gather the most up-to-date data available. These many stakeholders will be involved throughout the process as Auerbach’s team builds the comprehensive user’s guide for population health metrics.

To be successful, Auerbach says, the toolkit will need to be accessible and understandable. It will also need to be feasible for large insurance companies, small community-based doctor’s offices, and organizations in between.