The health outcomes of a group of people—including the overall health outcomes of the group and the distribution of health outcomes within the group—is a concept defined as population health. The population can be distinguished through geographic, occupational and demographic characteristics, among others.1 Commonly, populations are defined by location, income, education, race, gender, ethnicity or age.
As the terms suggest, individual health focuses on the health outcomes of a single person, while population health looks at health across and within groups of individuals. Like individual health, population health is affected by determinants and factors that include healthcare quality and access, behaviors, social (e.g., income, education, employment, culture) and physical (e.g., urban design, clean air, water) environments and genetics.
Population health does not simply aggregate the health outcomes of individuals; it also considers the distribution of health in a group of people. A group of individuals may have high levels of health overall, while certain individuals within the group do not share the health outcomes of the overall group. Population health acknowledges health differences within a group, with the goal of identifying and eliminating inequities across and within groups.2
Population health is closely related to public health, defined as “an approach [that] focuses on interrelated conditions and factors that influence the health of populations over the life course, identifies systematic variations in their patterns of occurrence, and applies the resulting knowledge to develop and implement policies and actions to improve the health and well-being of those populations.”3 Public health focuses on the promotion and protection of people’s health and their communities. The field largely emphasizes prevention of the development and further progression of disease. To prevent illness in populations, public health works to promote healthy conditions in which people live, work and play.4
Improving population health involves a collaborative effort across stakeholders.5 Medical care has a relatively small influence on overall health when compared with behaviors such as smoking and poor diet, physical environmental hazards such as polluted air and unsafe roadways, and social factors like unemployment, low educational achievement, and poverty.
A critical aim of policies seeking to improve population health is to reduce health inequities. Inequities—differences resulting from unjust and unfair treatment of certain groups, and not by inherent qualities of those groups6—often exist across different racial, ethnic and gender groups; income levels and zip codes.
1. Improving Population Health, "What Is Population Health?"
3. Falk, Leslie Hough, "What is Population Health and How Does it Compare to Public Health?" Health Catalyst (July 30, 2014).
4. American Public Health Association, "What is Public Health?"
5. "Improving Population Health by Working with Communities: Action Guide 3.0," National Quality Forum (August 2016).
6. Meghani, Salimah H. and Rollin M. Gallagher "Disparity vs Inequity: Toward Reconceptualization of Pain Treatment Disparities," Pain Medicine, Vol. 9, No. 5 (July 2008).