Population Health: Start with Teams Not Tools - Cover

Population Health: Start with Teams Not Tools

Population health strategies are beginning to mature and spread with increasing speed, and in a market with such hype, it’s tempting to sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch the fireworks. Provider organizations grow increasingly eager to leverage population health techniques to reach more patients and provide better care. In response, vendors create more robust population health technologies.

Many provider organizations’ population health strategies currently focus on obtaining the perfect tools. To no one’s surprise or pleasure, this approach generally requires spending a lot of money. Even worse is the fact that these investments don’t always pan out.

I have spoken with many an organization who has spent a fortune on exciting tools, yet finds themselves waiting to see improved outcomes. I worry that the promise of ever more sophisticated, shiny software may distract healthcare leaders from the most important piece of their population health strategy.

Tools Are Never Enough

Obviously, analytical data is key to population health, and robust tools certainly help us access and use that data. But in my career as a statistician, I’ve learned that strategies that start with tools are likely to end in failure. Long-lasting, widespread success almost always starts with people.

Recently, a CMIO friend of mine said that one of his pet peeves is when his colleagues assume that getting amazing tools will solve all their problems. He shared an analogy that he often repeats to his team: Relying on an upscale tool to do the work is like buying a Lamborghini but never learning how to drive.

Poor analysts, even with the best tools, won’t achieve ideal results. Imagine putting me behind the wheel of that Lamborghini on a race track; regardless of that car’s bleeding-edge tech, I’d still likely end up in a ditch (which may have happened once—long story). Taylor's Car in a Ditch

On the other hand, I have seen great analysts do amazing things with crummy technology. That’s why I believe that putting the right people in the right place should come—both in chronology and in priority—before getting the ideal tools.

The question logically follows, “Where do you put these analysts?”

Should We Centralize?

Healthcare organizations have to worry about more than just hiring capable analysts; they also have to decide on a structure for their analytic efforts. Leaders wonder which structure is most likely to lead to success and how to define success in the first place.

In my mind, organizations with successful population health strategies are the ones who tell me, “Our data is really helping us change.” Aggregating and analyzing data is relatively easy. Driving organization-wide change is the hard part, and organizations can inadvertently make it even harder by choosing the wrong structure for housing their analysts.

One popular method is to centralize the analytics; the organization puts their best analysts together and gives them nearly sole stewardship over the analytics tools. Unfortunately, this model doesn’t generally yield positive results. Why? Because it removes the best analysts from their respective areas, where they could otherwise be effective agents for organization-wide progress.

Let Analysts Spread Change

From what I’ve seen while working with various healthcare organizations in recent years, leaders of organizations with successful population health strategies realize three important truths:

1) Widespread change can only happen when everyone in the organization gets involved.

2) The most influential tool is one that even an average physician can use well.

3) The best person to provide technology training to a clinician is another clinician.

For these reasons, leaders should first focus on developing change experts that understand how to leverage great technology and then let these leaders ask for the tools they need. You will know you have the right people when they ask for far fewer tools than what you thought you needed and do far more with those tools than you thought possible!

Imagine the power of a respected change expert—one who feels like a peer and not an outsider—turning to one of his or her closest colleagues and saying, “Hey! I ran this great report, and it taught me things that I can use to improve my work. I’ll show you how you can run it, too!” Clinicians supporting and teaching each other leads to increased camaraderie, satisfaction with the technology, and, ultimately, improved care.

The healthcare industry boasts some of the most brilliant and passionate people on the planet. Yes, they need tools to optimize their work, but as leaders in a healthcare organization, we must build an environment and culture that breed success. At that point, we have to trust our teams to drive progress. When an organization gets it right, the fireworks begin. Sit back and watch with me if you’d like—I’ll even share my popcorn.