Breaking: The United States is among the top 10 most unhealthy countries in the world. Okay, that probably doesn’t come as a shock, but it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, research shows that Americans are increasing their overall physical activity and nixing unhealthy habits like tobacco use. These notable changes likely contribute to another positive trend: for the first time in decades, the rate of obesity in the United States is holding steady—and in some states, even decreasing. This shift in health and wellness is largely due to greater focus on overall population health. And if these trends hold up, it’s safe to assume that we’ll see a significant drop in the incidence of noncommunicable diseases as well as across-the-board improvements to health care in general.

Pro-health changes could also have a significant impact on the prevalence of musculoskeletal issues. As it stands right now, about 50% of American adults have been diagnosed with a musculoskeletal condition. And because rehab therapy is the most effective treatment modality for these conditions, rehab therapists could play a huge role in fostering better health at the population level. But, where to start?

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Direct-to-Employer Services

The APTA wants to help therapy providers get involved in population health initiatives, too. But instead of telling therapists to target patients directly, the APTA encourages PTs to start by connecting with employers. Why employers? According to this page, it’s “because they are common aggregating points in society for large groups of people.”

In many forward-thinking companies, this is already happening. Major companies like Google and Zappos have implemented programs that encourage movement and healthy lifestyles, all in the name of creating healthier, happier employees and better bottom lines. WebPT is a big believer in this, too. We have recurring initiatives like our company-wide step challenge, health metrics screenings, and various fitness events—all as part of our continual commitment to physical and mental wellness.

Some employers may need convincing.

But, not everyone is on board with this new approach to health improvement—at least not yet. Some skeptics and old-school corporate types might need a little encouragement, and that’s precisely where rehab therapists come in. The APTA has developed a Working With Employers Toward Population Health webpage, which is chock-full of resources to help providers make the case to employers that prioritizing employee health and preventing noncommunicable diseases makes for not only healthier employees, but also a healthier bottom line. And, to quote the APTA, “Rehab therapy professionals are poised to lead in collaboration with other disciplines.”

Collaborative Care

Population health isn’t just a PT, OT, or SLP concern. It’s one of the three prongs of the Triple Aim, which means all healthcare providers are on the hook for improving the health of entire populations and providing preventive care. And that means all providers must collaborate in order to achieve the best population health outcomes. This could mean making room at the table for new staff members who focus on specific specialties (such as dietitians, psychologists, chiropractors, and physicians) in order to offer patients a holistic, collaborative experience.

It’s mutually beneficial.

In this Founder Letter, WebPT’s president and co-founder, Heidi Jannenga, explains why this approach is good for patients and providers alike. As she puts it, “[collaborative care] allows us to take on a more relevant role in the treatment of population health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. It also helps us position ourselves to provide preventive care—as opposed to reactive intervention.” As a rehab therapist, you can lead the charge toward more holistic care and better population health—especially when it comes to preventing the diseases mentioned above.

It takes a village.

Between sedentary desk jobs and long commutes spent sitting in the car, the average American lifestyle doesn’t exactly make it easy to maintain a healthy level of function. On top of that, staying healthy and active requires significant education to help individuals understand how to:

  • read tricky food labeling;
  • get enough daily exercise;
  • set reasonable goals and expectations; and
  • stay motivated.

So, the question is: Who’s going to teach the population? As it stands, there isn't really one group of health and/or wellness professionals who master all components of a healthy lifestyle as part of their education. Nutritionists focus on diet, physicians focus on disease management, psychologists focus on behavior change, and physical therapists focus on movement and exercise—and all of those areas are critical to a person's overall health. That’s why it’s crucial that all of these professionals work together and educate each other—in addition to their patients.

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Big Data

The CDC certainly doesn’t mince words in its definition of a positive outcome, which includes good physical function, a sense of well-being, and “being alive.” (I have to agree with that last one.) And tracking outcomes can help providers understand patient health—and adjust treatment protocols—in real time, thus leading to better, more efficient results. But outcomes data doesn’t just help improve individual health. It can also tell you a lot about overall population health. For example, it can help providers and healthcare leaders pinpoint large-scale health trends and adjust prevention and treatment approaches accordingly—all in a streamlined, organized manner.

Outcomes could decrease the cost of health care.

In a recent interview, Jannenga talked about why outcomes tracking plays such a critical role in the push to improve population health. “In our quest towards improved quality of care, we’re now starting to understand the value equation that has to include outcomes—along with understanding how to decrease the cost of care,” she said. She also noted two things that must happen if rehab therapists want their outcomes to actually help move the population health needle: (1) they must use outcomes tools that are understood and appreciated across specialities, and (2) they must complete meaningful analysis of the data they collect.

Shifting the industry’s collective focus from individual care to overall health is a pretty big movement, and it certainly won’t happen overnight. After all, the art of healing is a long-held tradition in health care, and people will always need access to quality care. But, what if providers could prevent individuals from ever needing to seek care in the first place? What if we could reduce the number of musculoskeletal diagnoses and start focusing on creating a healthier population? It’s a lofty goal, but it’s possible with a strong, grassroots effort and the right tools in hand.

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