Population health seeks to create conditions that promote health, prevent adverse events, and improve outcomes. We use data to determine community needs, develop and implement new strategies to address these needs, and measure the outcomes in the community. Population health is a relatively new concept that emerged in the 1990s, and has been studied mostly in large cities. The CPH is focused on the study of population health here in rural and small-town America.

What is the difference between traditional healthcare and population health? The traditional approach to health focuses on individual patients and medical services, whereas population health efforts broaden the focus to address the social, environmental, cultural, and behavioral factors that affect health. For population health researchers like Drs. Trina Thompson and Marquita Decker-Palmer, health care services are just one link in the chain of factors that can improve the health of the region. The issues that have the greatest effect on population health are generally determined by the community’s economic stability and the strength of social relationships. Examples include: educational and job opportunities, public safety and crime rates, residential segregation, quality of schools, and access to reliable transportation. Simply stated, the leading determinants of an individual’s health have more to do with the social factors and the area (zip code) in which they live.

Using side-by-side comparisons can help explain the differences between traditional healthcare for individuals and population health efforts for a community.  According to the Jefferson College of Population Health:

Purpose: Traditional healthcare has historically been focused on curing disease after someone becomes ill. The purpose of a population health project or program is to keep people healthy, prevent illness and screen for disease before it causes problems.

Values: The values of traditional healthcare are to diagnose, treat, manage and cure disease. The values of population health projects and programs are to improve community wellness, prevent disease or stop its progression.

Methods: Traditional healthcare uses medical science to diagnose and treat individuals. Population health uses many scientific fields (including biology, sociology, economics, and psychology) to guide community engagement and education, with a focus on disease management and prevention.

Why is population health important? Among other reasons, the health of a region’s population is one facet that can drive the local economy. Many people don’t realize that companies study the overall health of an area when considering a new location for their business. For example, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundations County Health Rankings & Roadmaps as of 2017, 29% of adults living in Cambria County and 38% of adults living in Somerset County are classified as obese. Obesity is the leading cause of diabetes and is linked to other chronic illnesses such as heart and kidney disease.

A healthy workforce is more productive, and will likely cost an employer less in terms of absenteeism and insurance costs. Companies must determine the cost of providing health insurance for their employees. That cost significantly increases when a substantial percentage of the workforce requires expensive treatment for chronic health conditions. A company that is considering moving to the region, bringing jobs that would help boost the local economy, may decide that the financial risk is too high and relocate to another town with a healthier population.

As a community, how do we begin to make changes on a local level?  A healthy community begins at home. Take steps to create a healthy environment for your family by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods; exercising more; reducing unnecessary stress, and eliminating unhealthy habits such as smoking, excessive drinking and drug use. We must make a commitment as to better our region’s environmental and economic conditions, and work to shape health policy decisions made by local and state governments.  Making a difference requires effort from every one of us …and all of us at the 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health are here to help!

On a regular basis, this space will address specific methods and ideas we can work on together to help improve the health of the region’s population. We will highlight current priorities and issues facing the community, and encourage public dialogue and practical solutions. We invite you to check back regularly to learn more about our efforts and encourage you to share your thoughts and ideas on ways to make our community healthier.


1.      Harris D, Puskarz K, & Golab C. Population Health: curriculum framework for an emerging discipline. Population Health Management, 2016,19(1), 39-45. doi:10.1089/pop.2015.0129

2.   Noren J. Population health–a new discipline. Physician executive. 1997;23(7):18-23.

3. 2017 County Health Rankings. A collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Accessed November 15, 2017.