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25 May

Defining Population Health


What is Population Health?

Population Health is a relatively new term in the healthcare industry, and depending on who you speak to; it has different definitions. Dr. Larry Mullins, President and CEO of Samaritan Health Services, sums it up nicely in this quote:

"Some would define it as determining the health of a defined group or population using health care modifiers to help make that determination. An easier answer might be just taking care of our family, friends and neighbors on a larger scale.”1

However, the overall metrics used to measure population health can get a little more complex and vary greatly depending on the area and study participants. Population density, racial diversity, social inequalities, rural subpopulations and health infrastructure are just a few of the many factors that play into the overall population health definition.

The Origins of Population Health

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines population health as "an interdisciplinary, customizable approach that allows health departments to connect practice to policy for change to happen locally."2

But where did this relatively new discipline originate from, and how has it evolved? One of the earliest models on population health was defined by R.G. Evans and G.L. Stoddart in a 1990 book entitled "Why Are Some People Healthy and Others Not? The Determinant of Health of Population." Their early model roughly defines how lifestyle, environment and human biology are determinants of disease, with inadequate healthcare infrastructure leading to a cycle of care without cure.3

D.A. Kindig and G.L. Stoddart expanded on this model in a 2003 paper in the American Journal of Public Health, where Kindig offered the definition: "the aggregate health outcome of health adjusted life expectancy (quantity and quality) of a group of individuals, in an economic framework that balances the relative marginal returns from the multiple determinants of health."4

This updated definition introduces the prospect of measuring how cost-effective healthcare is, which has become a necessary determinant in regions with limited resource allocation. More recently updated models define how health policies and programs in combination with elements of disparity alter determinants to produce specific outcomes.5

The disparity is measured by gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status as well as by groups such as geographical location, disabilities, prisoners, etc. Determinant factors that typically come into play when discussing modern health populations are genetics, healthcare, individual behavior and physical and social environment.5

Population Health vs. Public Health

When discussing population health, it's important to understand the differentiation between it and public health. Whereas population health investigates trends in the overall health of a specific group, public health typically describes governmental infrastructure put in place to provide hospitals, manage epidemics, promote education and contain environmental hazards.

Nowadays, there is a degree of crossover between the two as some governments call for public health reform that takes into account the mitigating factors found in more diverse communities. Social epidemiology has also been noted as a significant area of research that contributes to the formulation of population health models.6

The CDC differentiates public health from population health in a similar fashion, describing differences in immediate care provision as opposed to long-term healthcare improvements. This remains a developing trend, but moving forward, we may begin to see a greater level of collaboration between the public health sector and population health researchers.2

The Role of Healthcare Technology

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in the healthcare industry, encompassing medical devices, health informatics and health information tools. The widespread use of mobile phones in rural communities facilitates the integration of health technology, providing a foundation for data collection and solution deployment. With these innovations, healthcare officials have a means of better tracking and understanding the wider health of a population via internet-connected devices.

The introduction of electronic medical records combined with mobile health technology (mHealth) is helping healthcare professionals to improve the quality of care provided. However, it’s important to remember that in these cases, people come first and technology second. This equates to developing healthcare technology that is tailored to be most effective for a certain region or ethnic diversity.7

Well-implemented mHealth devices typically deliver more accurate information and statistics that can be leveraged to develop solutions for long-improvements in health such as education, early childhood development and perinatal care. Most critically, the needs and opinions of the community must be taken into account at each stage of health technology development. This approach is defined as community-based participatory research (CBPR) and is a field that has garnered much attention lately as an improvement to traditional investigator-driven research.8

Career Opportunities in Population Health

Ongoing developments in our understanding and approach to population health promise to deliver improved outcomes for communities worldwide. However, as the industry evolves and expands, there is a growing need for professionals with expertise in the areas of healthcare informatics and technology.

If you believe this is an area where you could offer effective insights and solutions, an online Master’s in Health Informatics could help you achieve your goals. Kent State offers a fully inclusive and convenient online MS in Health Informatics that can be integrated into your schedule and completed from the comfort of your own home.

Speak to one of our Admissions Advisors today about taking the first step towards your future of delivering innovative healthcare solutions.

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