By Brad Beutler

These days it seems as though everyone even remotely involved in healthcare spends a majority of their time discussing issues like population health, individualized medicine, and patient-centric care. Lets face it – we’re all concerned about our health, both as individuals and as a large group. This concern brings up a simple question: hasn’t healthcare always been focused on people and populations?

The answer is also quite simple – yes and no.

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Historically, the practice of medicine was considered an art, which at some point in the 20th century transformed into a business. Doctors spent meaningful time with their patients, getting to know them and their families, listening to their problems to better care for them as an individual. Sure, doctors and hospitals have continued to treat patients one at a time, but as our population has grown and less time is available for each patient, it has been somewhat of a double-edged sword for the healthcare industry. On one hand, we’ve learned more from each patient encounter, and as the volume of patients and procedures grew, so did the accumulated knowledge. And on the other hand, the business side of the equation was impacted by the increasing volume of, well, everything. The problems began to arise when the resources to pay for more and more “care” began to dwindle, as did the time to spend with each patient.

Although we have discovered more about what works and what doesn’t for particular illnesses, for certain populations of patients, and even for healthcare processes in general, that knowledge and business intelligence needs to be put to use treating others more effectively and more efficiently in the future. With more people – especially older and sicker people – and less time and resources to care for all of them, the challenges of both population health and personalized medicine become more daunting. We need to ask the harder questions like: how do we build value and create better outcomes while spending less?

Let’s fast forward to the present, the 21st century. We have faster technology, easier ways of communicating, nearly unlimited data storage capabilities, and – most importantly – a world economy that is forcing us to do more with less. Finally, the stars are aligned and the healthcare industry has the power to use all of the data that has been collected and stored over the years, in ways that will benefit huge patient populations, as well as enhance the healthcare experience for each patient, no matter where they are in the healthcare journey.

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If we’re going to tackle the challenges of population health as a society, we need to improve the way patients are treated – one person at a time. Personalizing the healthcare experience for the individual isn’t just about making the process less stressful, or less like a healthcare “assembly line.” That part of the journey certainly needs to be improved as well, but even more importantly, we need to be able to access all of the data required to care for each patient in the right place at the right time – no exceptions.

In the future – which, by the way, is actually here – we’ll be able to ensure that providers can treat each of their patients as they want and deserve to be treated – as individuals. The availability of data across the continuum of care, from hospitals to labs to payers, will lead to a continuous improvement in population health as well. I’m reminded of a scene from the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, where a large crowd of people are chanting, “We’re all individuals, we’re all individuals,” and one man in the back of the crowd quietly says, “I’m not.” If we’re going to improve healthcare on a global scale, we need to reach out to the man in the crowd who is different. We need to change healthcare one patient at a time.

Dr. Charlie Miraglia is the Chief Medical Officer at hc1.com.

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