How to Engage With a Population to Break Down Barriers to Health Improvements


By Megan Headley

Healthcare organizations seek new engagement solutions for populations challenged to make improvements in their care.

It’s fair to assume that everyone wants to be healthy. But healthcare organizations shifting their focus to wellness and value-based care may find that they must overcome significant barriers in getting some populations to engage in health improvements.

There are numerous reasons that individuals ignore their own health: They put the care of children or parents over their own needs, face difficulty in getting to a healthcare provider, have confusion about where to start in managing chronic pain, or are unwilling to change current behavior to achieve long-term health improvements. The challenge that many healthcare organizations face is engaging these broad populations to drive the changes that will lead to long-term wellness, as well as reduced readmissions and costs.

Population health was most clearly defined back in 2003 when researchers described it in the American Journal of Public Health as the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group. The term has been widely used for decades, but many health systems are still in the early stages of understanding how they can impact the health of populations, whether defined by geography, economics, ethnicity, disability, or other criteria. Both in promoting wellness and managing chronic illnesses, it pays for healthcare providers to drive behavior changes early so they can reduce emergency room admissions over the long term.

“While some refer to patient engagement as the ‘last mile’ of population health, I believe it is so much more,” comments Vicki Harter, BA, RRT, vice president of care transformation at Caradigm, a provider of population health software.

Harter points to three areas where patient engagement has become key for managing population health. “First, today’s healthcare environment has shifted the risk of healthcare accountability and decision-making from payers to providers and providers to patients and their families. High-deductible health plans, health savings accounts, as well as financial pressures beyond healthcare have escalated the rise of consumerism. Second, attention to quality outcomes has increased consumer demand for transparency at all levels. Patients are engaging in selection of providers from both quality and efficiency of care aspects. Last but not least, the expansion of healthcare wearables and telehealth devices has heightened consumer awareness about how they can participate in their own health and puts pressure on provider organizations to consider patient experience of care as they plan their population health approaches,” she says.

In many cases, health improvements can’t be made until healthcare organizations explore how to engage with large populations that take into account the barriers they face. New strategies and tools are being developed to ease access to healthcare and encourage individuals to take charge of their health.

Reframing barriers with new incentives  

In many cases, the barriers to health-related behavior changes include ingrained habits and irrational fears. Outreach and engagement initiatives must be designed to reframe these barriers and present incentives that are personal and relatable. Engagement requires applying data with a personal approach.

As Beth Sutherland, RN, BSN, clinical product manager for Caradigm, recently blogged, “Some patients will actively choose how, where and when to access healthcare based on cost, quality data and other patient’s reviews.” However, Sutherland added, “Other patients may feel overwhelmed by managing their health and will require a more guided and supportive approach to understanding, monitoring and potentially confidently managing their conditions at some point.”