What leads to healthier people?” asks John Auer­bach, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Prac­tice and director of the Insti­tute of Urban Health Research and Prac­tice in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences. “It’s not just the care they get from doctor,” he says, “but their lifestyle choices and the envi­ron­ment where they live and work.”

These fac­tors, Auer­bach explains, are used to build population-​​based health met­rics. And these met­rics, he says, are essen­tial tools that can be used to treat patients, estab­lish pre­ven­tive care mea­sures, and save big health­care dollars.

When you create population-​​based met­rics, you’re not just looking at how you treat a patient who’s suf­fered a heart attack,” Auer­bach says. “You’re also mon­i­toring the myriad envi­ron­mental aspects that impact the patient’s health.”

Auer­bach is the prin­cipal inves­ti­gator on a grant North­eastern recently received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foun­da­tion, the nation’s largest phil­an­thropy devoted solely the public health. The grant—which dove­tails with Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to pur­suing use-​​inspired research in health, one of the university’s core research themes—will be used to iden­tify a uni­versal set of population-​​based health met­rics and then inte­grate them into a toolkit. The toolkit will be used by health­care orga­ni­za­tions to imple­ment pay­ment reform and other mea­sures aimed at improving patient care and low­ering costs.

John Auerbach, Distinguished Professor of Practice and director of the Institute of Urban Health Research and Practice in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, is the principal investigator on a grant Northeastern recently received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted solely the public health. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

John Auer­bach, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Prac­tice and director of the Insti­tute of Urban Health Research and Prac­tice in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, is the prin­cipal inves­ti­gator on a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foun­da­tion, the nation’s largest phil­an­thropy devoted solely the public health. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

The health­care industry has con­tinued to focus on ways to improve cur­rent pay­ment struc­tures as Pres­i­dent Obama’s land­mark Afford­able Care Act and other ele­ments of health­care reform go into effect. Global pay­ments, in which health­care providers receive large lump sums from payers to cover the expected costs of care, have been put in place to help the health­care industry tran­si­tion away from the tra­di­tional pay-​​for-​​service model. Sup­porters say global pay­ments incen­tivize the health­care industry to coor­di­nate and deliver effi­cient and effec­tive care, par­tic­u­larly through pre­ven­ta­tive care.

The idea is that access to population-​​based health met­rics, which link patients’ clin­ical expe­ri­ences with the broader envi­ron­mental fac­tors in their com­mu­ni­ties, would help insurers make deci­sions that empha­size pre­ven­ta­tive care and avoid unnec­es­sary, costly med­ical tests.

Auer­bach says the health­care industry is eager to start working within an accepted frame­work to mea­sure providers’ ability to improve pop­u­la­tion health. While there are many mean­ingful efforts aimed at iden­ti­fying evidence-​​based pop­u­la­tion health indicators—the Insti­tute of Med­i­cine and the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion are but two—no one has yet cre­ated a con­sol­i­dated and readily acces­sible list of such met­rics. That’s where Auerbach’s group comes in.

Last month, his team began facil­i­tating dis­cus­sions with key orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­uals cur­rently working on pop­u­la­tion health mea­sures in an effort to gather the most up-​​to-​​date data avail­able. These many stake­holders will be involved throughout the process as Auerbach’s team builds the com­pre­hen­sive user’s guide for pop­u­la­tion health metrics.

To be suc­cessful, Auer­bach says, the toolkit will need to be acces­sible and under­stand­able. It will also need to be fea­sible for large insur­ance com­pa­nies, small community-​​based doctor’s offices, and orga­ni­za­tions in between.