Workplace Wellness

What are Today’s Biggest Population Health Issues and How Can Organizations Help Mitigate Them?

Written by Kate

Historically, the healthcare system in the US has been all about numbers. Simply put, the more services provided to patients (visits, procedures, hospital admissions, prescriptions), the more healthcare providers get paid. However, we’ve recently seen a marked shift from fee-for-service models to value-based care as more organizations look to tackle population health issues on a broader scale.

As organizations move from volume to value, the health and well-being of communities have become a shared responsibility, transcending the borders of personal and professional lives. For business owners and executives, it’s become about transforming the lives of your employees and, by extension, their families and communities. But you can’t do that effectively without adequately understanding the most pressing population health issues and their drivers.

Our aim is to help you uncover today’s most critical population health issues and make a lasting impact by adopting innovative strategies to mitigate them. Some of the questions we explore today include:

Population Health vs. Public Health: What is the Difference?

Although these terms may intersect at some point, each represents a unique idea on closer inspection.

Population health  is “the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group.” These populations may or may not be segregated by the communities in which they live, age, or even specific diseases and conditions.

Since the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, the focus has increasingly shifted to Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). For example, there are ACOs for young kids, cancer patients, Medicare recipients, etc.

medicare recipients

Public health is an umbrella term for broader disease prevention and management efforts. It encompasses actions done at the local, regional, state, or federal government and where this work crisscrosses with the needs and responsibilities of other stakeholders, informing the health conversation more locally.

Although public health is primarily a government responsibility, both private and public organizations are very important contributors, acting as the interface between the government and the community as they advance public health measures.

What are the 5 Most Common Population Health Issues?

Population health issues are complex and ever-evolving. That said, most of these issues belong to 6 broad categories that have remained relevant over time.

Chronic diseases                                                     

The average life expectancy at birth in the United States has been steadily increasing for at least half a century now. However, these gains are often overshadowed by the prevalence of chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory illnesses.

6 in 10 US adults have a chronic illness, and 4 in 10 have two or more. Presently, chronic illnesses are the leading causes of death and disability in the US.

Obesity and related complications

With 42% of adults in the US classified as overweight or obese, this epidemic is not something to scoff at. Obesity sets up the patient for various chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. There’s also the healthcare spending burden.

In 2019, $173 billion dollars were spent on obesity-related complications. Adults with obesity spent $1,861 more on medical costs than people with a healthy weight. The costs increase with age, with the highest predicted expenditures falling in the 60-70 age group.

Mental health challenges

Approximately one in five adults experience mental health issues each year, ranging from depression and anxiety to more severe conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. These disorders affect an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, potentially impacting their daily functioning and overall well-being. 

In a world still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, high rates of inflation, and an unstable global economy, there are still many persisting barriers to adequate mental healthcare and mental health issues are expected to continue rising in the foreseeable future.

Substance abuse                                     

Since the late 1990s, the ongoing opioid epidemic in the US has resulted in 932,000+ deaths. In 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), 106,000+ persons in the US died from a drug-involved overdose in 2021, including illicit drugs and prescription drug abuse.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse

Health disparities and inequalities

Persistent socioeconomic and racial/ethnic disparities in healthcare access, quality, and outcomes lead to uneven health burdens across different populations. These disparities result in reduced life expectancy, increased rates of chronic diseases, and poor health outcomes for affected communities.

A “COVID-19 Cases and Deaths by Race/Ethnicity” report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that people of color were disproportionately affected by the virus more than other ethnic groups. “Total cumulative data show that Black, Hispanic, AIAN, and NHOPI people have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths than White,” the report reads in part. 

What is the Most Severe Population Health Issue at the Moment?

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 remains the most significant public health threat at the moment. According to the World Health Organization, there have been 763,740,140 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 6,908,554 deaths globally as of 19th April 2023. Moreover, the pandemic has put immense strain on many systems, resulting in two major population health issues: mental health and health disparities.

Mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, according to the WHO. With lockdowns, job losses, economic uncertainties, and death and loss, mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders became increasingly common during the pandemic. For health and other frontline workers, exhaustion was a leading cause of suicidal thinking. According to the WHO, depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion annually.

A note on health disparities

Even though COVID-19’s severity was felt worldwide in all communities, the pandemic disproportionately impacted historically marginalized populations. These low-income communities and racial/ethnic minorities experienced higher infection, hospitalization, and death rates

“Persistent health disparities combined with historic housing patterns, work circumstances, and other factors have put members of some racial and ethnic minority populations at higher risk for COVID-19 infection, severe illness, and death,” the CDC acknowledges

What are the Leading Causes of Population Health Issues?

Several drivers contribute to the prevalence and severity of population health issues. They include:

Social Determinants of Health (SDOHs)           

Social determinants of health are conditions “in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.” Some of the most influential determinants of health outcomes include income, education, employment, social support networks, and access to healthcare.

Environmental factors and exposures

Environmental conditions play a crucial role in shaping health outcomes. For example, several studies indicate there’s a strong relationship between the poor living conditions of many minority children, particularly Blacks, and Hispanics, and increased risks of disease occurrence.

Factors such as air and water quality, exposure to hazardous substances, and climate change have also been found to impact the prevalence of various health issues, including respiratory diseases, allergies, and vector-borne illnesses.

Lifestyle choices and behaviors

Unhealthy habits and behaviors cause 50%+ of preventable deaths in the US. Tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, poor dietary choices, and physical inactivity increase the risk of chronic diseases and lead to other health problems. These risk behaviors also account for a significant proportion of the country’s $4.1 trillion annual healthcare expenditure.

healthy lifestyle choice

Genetic predispositions and family history

Genetic factors can influence an individual’s susceptibility to specific health conditions. For example, African American women are more prone to uterine fibroids than Caucasians. Understanding and addressing these genetic predispositions through targeted interventions and preventive measures can contribute to improved population health.

Access to and quality of healthcare

Structurally marginalized populations have been on the receiving end of poor healthcare for ages. Multiple reports have stated that disparities in healthcare quality and access only exacerbate existing health inequalities and lead to poor health outcomes for certain population groups. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of addressing population health issues, implementing public health measures, and promoting equitable access to healthcare services.

What are 5 Avenues to Address Population Health Issues?

Addressing population health issues requires comprehensive and coordinated strategies that targets the multiple factors influencing health outcomes. Every stakeholder, from the government to private employers, has a crucial role in improving overall population’s health through numerous initiatives.

  1. Policy interventions and legislation: The government’s role is to implement policies and regulations that address the social determinants of health. Targeted interventions can include increasing access to affordable housing, quality education, nutritious food and improving working conditions and income support programs.
  1. Public health initiatives and campaigns: Implementing targeted public health campaigns and programs can promote healthy behaviors, prevent infectious diseases, and increase access to preventive healthcare services. Such initiatives include vaccination, disease awareness, and tobacco use intervention programs.
  1. Community-based interventions and collaborations: Local organizations, including non-profits, faith-based organizations, and community health centers, can work together to identify and address health disparities and other population health issues within their communities.
  1. Healthcare system improvements and innovations: Healthcare providers and employers should adopt value-based care models that prioritize patient outcomes and emphasize prevention and disease management. This may involve expanding access to primary care, integrating behavioral health services into primary care settings, and leveraging telemedicine to reach underserved populations.
  1. Workplace health promotion and wellness programs: Employers can promote population health by implementing workplace wellness programs that encourage healthy lifestyles, provide resources for mental health support, and address work-related stressors.

What are 6 Ways Organizations Can Help Mitigate Population Health Issues?

The employer’s role in mitigating population health issues has never been more crucial. Luckily, there are more tools to help them achieve their population health goals.

Leverage technology for health monitoring and education

Digital platforms and tools, such as population health software and wearable health trackers, can help companies and employees monitor and access reliable health information. This can empower employees to make informed decisions regarding their well-being and lifestyle choices.

Support mental health through resilience training and mindfulness programs

Employers should train managers to recognize signs of mental distress. They can also offer resilience training and mindfulness programs to help employees develop coping mechanisms and stress-reduction techniques.

Develop targeted interventions for high-risk employees         

Identifying at high risk populations for specific health issues can help organizations develop targeted interventions like personalized coaching, specialized support groups, and other tailored resources.

Encourage social connectedness and peer support

Fostering a sense of community and social connectedness within the workplace is crucial to overall well-being. Team-building activities, volunteer programs, and peer support groups can create a more supportive and collaborative work environment.

employee assistance programs

Promote work-life balance and stress management

Employees typically spend more than 1/3 of their time in the workplace. Encouraging them to maintain a healthy work-life balance can reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Implement flexible work hours, remote work options, and parental leave to support employees in balancing their personal and professional lives.

Collaborate with community organizations and public health initiatives

Partnering with local organizations and participating in community health initiatives can help businesses contribute to improving population health outcomes in their communities. Organizations can also support public health campaigns focused on vaccination, disease prevention, and health promotion to benefit their employees and the wider community.

What are Examples of Specific Tools and Initiatives Organizations Can Use to Mitigate Population Health Issues?

Organizations can incorporate numerous tools and initiatives in their wellness programs to address population health issues and promote a healthier work environment.

  1. Health risk assessments (HRAs): HRAs help identify employees’ health risks and provide personalized recommendations to promote healthier lifestyles.
  1. Mental health support platforms: Digital mental health support platforms, such as Headspace, Calm, BetterHealth, and myStrength, offer employees access to resources for stress reduction, meditation, and professional counseling services.
  1. Telemedicine services: Telemedicine services address barriers to healthcare access. They provide employees convenient access to healthcare professionals through video calls, phone consultations, and online messaging when needed.
  1. Health coaching and disease management programs: Health coaching and disease management programs can support employees with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. These programs can provide employees personalized guidance, resources, and support to manage their conditions and improve their overall health.
  1. Workplace exercise and fitness initiatives: On-site fitness facilities, organizing group exercise classes, or providing discounted memberships to local gyms can promote physical activity. Additionally, incorporating walking meetings, standing desks, and regular stretch breaks into the workday can help employees integrate physical activity into their daily routines.
  1. Nutrition education and healthy food options: Providing employees with nutrition education resources, such as seminars, workshops, and online materials, can help them make healthier food choices. Organizations can also promote healthy eating by offering nutritious meal options in cafeterias, vending machines, and during meetings or events.
  1. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs): EAPs are an essential tool for addressing various population health issues, such as mental health concerns, substance abuse, and work-life balance challenges. EAPs provide employees with confidential counseling, referrals, and resources to help them navigate personal and professional challenges.
Corporate Wellness Benefit Managers having a discussion while looking at an electronic tablet.

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