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Is This Population Health’s Moment? Time for Data and Analytics

May 26, 2015
by Mark Hagland
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Leaders from all sectors of healthcare understand that the journey to population health success is going to continue to be a long, challenging one

Every year, the annual HIMSS Conference, sponsored by the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, offers its attendees a kind of conference-based snapshot of where the U.S. healthcare industry is with regard to the forward evolution of healthcare information technology adoption, as well as a sense of the overall policy and operational landscape of healthcare. Attendees can get a sense of the healthcare IT Zeitgeist through attending keynote addresses, educational sessions, association meetings, and networking-focused gatherings, as well as by wandering the exhibit hall and simply by having meaningful conversations with fellow attendees.

HIMSS15, held at the vast McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago the week of April 12, offered perhaps the clearest portrait of the current moment that has yet been offered to date. Session after session focused on the shift beginning to take place from volume-based healthcare reimbursement to value-based payment, across a very wide range of mechanisms, between providers and both the public and private purchasers and payers of healthcare, and the implications of that shift for healthcare IT leaders.

Further, as part of the keynote session on Thursday, April 16 in the Skyline Ballroom at McCormick Place, Andy Slavitt, Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), made the intentions of federal authorities crystal clear, when, referencing the statement of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell in January that she wanted the bulk of Medicare fee-for-service payments to providers to shift as quickly as possible over to quality- and value-based payment, Slavitt said, “Our priority is simple: to drive a delivery system that provides better care, smarter spending, and keeps people healthier. The success in the first five years since the Affordable Care Act has been very encouraging… Our agenda now,” he said, “is to get busy strengthening these gains. That will mean that more providers in more communities will need to be able to transform the care they provide so that they will benefit from value-based reimbursement. And they will need technology to help them get there.”

What’s more, in his keynote address two days earlier, Humana CEO Bruce Broussard had told HIMSS attendees, “We have to change the conversation on what we are doing in healthcare from a supply-based system to a system around demand, a system where we put the customer first as opposed to the system. Over the years,” he added, “healthcare has been built by creating more and more supply. I hope I leave today by convincing you that we have to change the focus towards how we improve health for our customers, members, and patients.”

The good news on the solutions side of this landscape is that vendors are rushing forward to provide population health- and accountable care-driven analytics solutions, at a time when such solutions are most desperately needed. Certainly, the hype at HIMSS15 was all around population health, care management, and accountable care solutions. The only question now, as the U.S. healthcare industry hurtles forward into the near future, is, is this a breakthrough moment for population health efforts? And if so, are provider and health plan leaders ready to effectively leverage the tools to make pop health really happen?

The long journey ahead

Leaders from all sectors of healthcare understand that the journey to population health and value-driven care delivery and payment success is going to continue to be a long, challenging one. Donald W. Fisher, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Medical Group Association (AMGA), says he and his colleagues are putting the vast bulk of their efforts into helping prepare physician group leaders for the transition. “We’re not quite there yet, and as we change to a new reimbursement system, even the large, sophisticated medical groups are going to need a few years to make the transition,” Fisher says.  “You’ve got to put the infrastructure in place, and the large integrated health systems have been putting those elements in place—EHRs [electronic health records], alert systems, analytics systems, data warehouses—and some have teams of people mining the data to assess patient status.”

Donald W. Fisher, Ph.D.

Even more fundamentally, Fisher says, “You need a mindset for this. And we’re not all the way there yet. The problem is that we’re still being paid on fee for service, but also being asked to constrain our use of revenues and our utilization; and oftentimes, top-line revenue disappears.” In other words, he believes, it will take several years of transition, on the policy, business, and technology levels, before physician groups, the key executors of population health management, will be successful on a broad level going forward.