In September, NASA crashed a DART spacecraft into an asteroid to alter its course. This was a test for our planetary defense strategy, to determine if this same technique could be used in the future to avoid a catastrophic hit and protect Earth.
If they identify the asteroid too close to Earth, there’s not much they can do to stop it — we’re going to get hit. But if they can detect it farther out in space, that’s a game-changer.
The same concept holds true for one of healthcare’s biggest challenges: chronic disease.
If we can get in front of the chronic diseases that cause the biggest spend and the most sickness and heartbreak — heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and cancer — we could alleviate much of the disease burden. That’s powerful for patients, their families, and healthcare providers. That’s focusing on healthcare versus sick care. And it results in saving lives and substantial money. In healthcare, we refer to this as population health management.
This is the philosophy at my health system — we’re committed to healing our communities through population health. This is the very concept we had in mind when we started sending our community outreach buses to underserved areas of Long Island to identify and treat disease in its earliest stages. Many of these individuals have no health insurance or access to healthcare due to lack of transportation and finances, so we bring the care to them. We screen them, get them the care they need, and refer them to our partners through assistance programs and community resources. Our goal is to reduce chronic disease and expand access to care. This gets us upstream of disease and is crucial to keeping our communities healthy.
A recent example of this concept in action is a 36-year-old Hispanic man who visited our outreach bus when it was in his community. His blood sugar was dangerously high (465 versus the norm of <140 mg/dL). He was uninsured and said he could not afford to go to the hospital.
His health was on an alarming trajectory. So, our team told him we would get him the care he needed, regardless of his ability to pay. Then we got him to one of our emergency departments for further evaluation. Specialists provided him with a blood glucose meter and initial medications, then connected him with an endocrinologist for follow up. Left untreated, this man’s condition could have quickly progressed to a cardiac event costing tens of thousands of dollars or, even more costly, his life.
This is an example of applying population health principles to real world situations. It means delivering the right care, in the right place, at the right time. It’s not eliminating services. It’s increasing access points, testing, and screening early to identify risks and intervening to bend the disease curve. Yet, despite growing acceptance of the importance of prevention and prioritizing public health, too many health systems, facilities, and practices still fail to apply this concept in their care. It’s time to change that. In the long run it saves money. And, most importantly, it saves lives.
Patrick O’Shaughnessy, DO, MBA, is president and CEO of Catholic Health, a health system on Long Island, encompassing six acute care hospitals, three nursing homes, home health services, hospice, a network of physician practices, and more than 16,000 employees.