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Population Health Stretches the Boundaries of Healthcare

September 2016
Author: Lisa Ellis

What’s your design inspiration? Lately, I’ve heard several healthcare designers say that they’re focused on the concept of “population health” and the opportunity it offers to create meaningful change. While designing for the health of a community is not a novel idea, taking a broader perspective to move healthcare design strategies beyond the hospital setting and into the community has been exploding in popularity over the last few years.

Creating Supportive Environments 

A 2003 article in the American Journal of Public Health defined population health as “the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group.”

While this concept sounds impressive on paper, it’s important to understand population health from a practical standpoint. For designers and architects, population health is truly a game changer, offering endless opportunities to re-envision healthcare as we know it. It represents a shift in focus from treating people in the inpatient setting to filling their day-to-day environments with elements designed to help keep them well—and avoid the need for hospitalization in the first place.

In other words, population health provides designers and other space planners with a unique chance to blur the boundaries between hospitals and communities. This means moving care from inpatient facilities to ambulatory environments that are easy to access, creating designated space to educate people about making smart nutrition, health, and fitness choices, and providing tools and support to enable people to monitor and manage chronic conditions from the comfort of their own homes.

Promoting Community Partnerships and Tracking Outcomes 

Population health also provides a unique opportunity to create partnerships with community groups and other stakeholders that have a vested interested in keeping people well, and can even play a role in helping to bring this vision to fruition. Design experts can help facilitate such relationships by strategically planning features designed to draw healthy people to healthcare facilities, such as by providing meeting rooms for local groups to gather, incorporating walking and biking trails right on the hospital campus, and providing designated places for farmer’s markets, locally-sourced restaurants, and community gardens, helping to support healthy living on a deeper level.

Another crucial part of population health is incorporating technology to identify the needs that exist in order to make care more accessible, as well as providing more effective ways to track and measure outcomes, and using the data to understand patterns in specific populations.

For instance, Cooper University Health Care in Southern New Jersey relies on predictive consumer analytics to determine ideal sites to locate new service lines and clinics. Specifically, using data about different neighborhoods and residents through an online mapping tool enables Cooper to predict the needs and habits to guide their development plans. This helps Cooper select the most strategic sites and ensure that the level of care provided will fit the target audience.

Putting Technology to Work for Patients 

I also recently heard about another hospital that uses an online self-evaluation to determine patients who will benefit from more follow-up and intervention from their medical providers. Some organizations even have a call center that sends automated messages to high-risk patients reminding them to fill prescriptions, schedule follow-up visits, and monitor their health status. In this way, technology both improves care and increases efficiency. In addition, a growing number of health centers use technology to provide patient education either in the facilities themselves or through remote access (on a computer or smartphone).

Looking Ahead 

All of these steps are part of managing patient care in a more proactive way, with a focus on health rather than on treating illness. For designers, this means that it is essential to think about how the right tools for population health can be incorporated into facility designs right from the outset, and how these tools can extend beyond the physical walls of the facility into the the community itself.


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