What is Population Health?

Published on: Aug 2, 2023

Population Health is a relatively new term. In fact, many scholars and professionals still disagree on how to succinctly define it1. To add to this confusion, the terms “population health” and “public health” are often used interchangeably in practice.

The purpose of this article is to provide a practical definition of population health. Additionally, you will learn how to take steps to pursue a career in population health.

What is Population Health? 

To define population health, let’s first distinguish it from public health. According to the CDC, public health is concerned with prolonging life and preventing disease amongst whole populations using “organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals”1. Institutions that provide public health services often cast a wide net to meet health needs. The World Health Organization (WHO) specifies that its mission is to “provide the maximum benefit for the largest amount of people”2.

The most widely used definition of population health comes from Kindig and Stoddart, who describe population health as “the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group”1. Put simply, the goal of population health is to measure health outcomes and how they differ amongst groups of people within a population.   

Population health outcomes measure mortality and life quality3,4. More specifically, population health metrics include: 

  • Life Expectancy 

  • Mortality

  • Death Rates

  • Disability 

  • Quality of Life

  • Self-assessed health

  • Happiness and well-being

Population Health in Practice: Key Focuses and Issues in the Field

So, what does population health look like in practice?  The Institute of Healthcare Improvement (IHI) created the “Triple Aim” framework, which has been adopted widely as the guiding principle for population health work5:

  1. Improving the patient experience of care (including quality and satisfaction);

  2. Improving the health of populations; and

  3. Reducing the per capita cost of health care.

A key aspect of population health is the ability to identify and address health disparities, or differences between health outcomes among subgroups of people.

Because healthcare resources are limited, addressing health disparities involves tradeoffs. Population health professionals work to manage, analyze, and optimize these tradeoffs to best support the health of groups of people in a certain geographical area.

You should focus your studies on population health if you are interested in the kind of systems-level, collaborative work it takes to achieve these aims. Some careers may work at the intersection of all three, such as a population health manager, or be more focused on one, such as a data analyst.

What is the Difference between Population Health and Community Health?

Community health is another public health discipline with a similar name and focus. Both fields focus on improving health outcomes amongst groups of individuals in a defined geographical area6,7. There are, however, some key differences between the two.

You can think of population health as a systems-level approach – it is about optimizing services and making recommendations for interventions that help manage chronic illnesses in a population. Community health, on the other hand, is more focused on actually delivering these health services, and doing so with the specific needs of the community in mind. It works to address the social determinants of health that are specific to a place, including aspects of the physical and social environment, through education and intervention8.

To illustrate the difference, say two individuals work for a large metropolitan area health system– a population health analyst and a community health worker. The population health analyst monitors and analyzes electronic health records (EHR) to report on patient diabetes diagnosis disparities. The community health worker provides nutrition and health services to the groups most severely impacted by diabetes through a targeted intervention program. Both employees play an integral role in improving the city’s public health. 

Pursuing a Career in Population Health

You will find that there are jobs with the “population health” explicitly in the title, but several disciplines also contribute to population health, including data science, management/administration, and healthcare financing. 

According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health9, workplaces where population health professionals might work include:

  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Nonprofits

  • Healthcare delivery organizations (Hospitals, clinics, health centers)

  • Accountable care organizations (ACOs) that deliver coordinated care (e.g., Kaiser Permanente)

  • Medical device companies

  • Health IT startups

  • Health insurance companies

  • Genomics and bioinformatics companies

Career Highlight: What Does a Population Health Manager Do?

The day-to-day of a population health manager will differ depending on the organization, but someone in this role works to improve the healthcare delivery systems for a defined population. This could include collaborating with community stakeholders to oversee service delivery, working closely with data analysts to track population outcomes, managing healthcare finances, and making recommendations for health interventions.

Key skills needed to become a population health manager include10

  • Analysis: Data is the driving force of this work, so you will need to know how to monitor and report out on health data. This may also involve collaboration with professionals in more technical roles, including health analysts and IT professionals. 

  • Collaboration: A population health manager will work with several groups of people, including physicians, analysts, and community stakeholders. You will need to be able to successfully lead interdisciplinary teams and communicate complex concepts to different audiences. 

  • Time and Project Management: You will need to manage team workloads, prioritize concurrent projects, and make efficient use of your own time. 

  • Problem Solving: This skill is essential for several tasks, from resolving team conflict to creating solutions for systems-level health issues. 

What Education is Needed for a Career in Population Health?

Because population health is interdisciplinary, several degrees can prepare you for a career in the field. 

At a minimum, you will need an undergraduate degree. While there are no required majors for a career in population health, a bachelor’s program in health administration or public health will serve as an excellent foundation. Management-level positions will likely require a graduate degree, multiple years of experience, and in many cases, some combination of both.

Graduate Degree Programs

Some graduate programs are specifically tailored to population health careers. For example, Thomas Jefferson University and Johns Hopkins University both have online graduate programs for working professionals looking to further their education in the field. Depending on your pacing, such programs could take 2 to 4 years to complete. You can use the ASSPH search tool to identify certified programs in population health and find a program tailored to your needs.  


However, there are other ways to pursue education in population health. Many schools offer certificates in related topics, including population health management, health data science, and healthcare administration. This is a good option if you already have extensive relevant work experience or are looking to build up a very specific skill set. If you are already in the application process for an MPH program, certificates can supplement your concentration of choice.

Population Health Coursework

Most accredited public health schools will have coursework within different concentrations that relate to population health. Depending on your desired focus, you can tailor concentration choice and electives to the available courses. 

If you are more interested in working directly with health data, review course offerings for biostatistics, epidemiology, and health analytics/informatics concentrations. These careers will place a high emphasis on proficiency with software such as R, Python, SQL, and EMR (electronic medical records). Courses that would be relevant to population health analytics careers include:

  • Population Health 

  • Health Analytics and/or Informatics

  • Outcomes Research 

  • Implementation Science

  • Software-based courses such as SQL, R, and Python

If you are interested in working in management, administration, or health services, you will likely find relevant course offerings in Management, Policy, and Health Services Research programs. Courses that would be relevant to population health management careers include:

  • Strategy and Management

  • Risk Management

  • Interdisciplinary Collaboration 

  • Healthcare Quality and Safety

  • Consumer Health

  • Outcomes Research

  • Value-Based Care

Gaining population health work experience

If you are not quite sure about which aspects of population health you want to work in, that’s okay! Population health jobs often require that you demonstrate field-related work experience, so it is a good idea to get some experience outside of the classroom through internships or jobs. Research institutes and healthcare systems associated with your school may have internal postings for student opportunities. 

Local or state health departments, nonprofit organizations, and health institutes are also good places to seek these experiences. Additionally, federal institutions such as the CDC and NIH have training programs for both students and post-graduate professionals. 

Preparing for a Career in Population Health

Between completing an undergraduate degree, graduate school, and getting relevant work experience, it can take several years to prepare for a career in population health. However, pursuing a career in population health is possible, and depending on your interest, an MPH program can be an excellent way to prepare.

Get started on your career journey today by finding the best public health program for you.

About the Authors

Written by:

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Wandia Mureithi, MPH is a public health project manager working in research and evaluation. Wandia received her Master’s in Public Health from Drexel University in 2022. Since beginning her career in 2018, she has been engaged in research projects and program evaluations related to sexual health, human trafficking prevention, tobacco prevention, opioid misuse treatment, and diabetes prevention. 

In addition to her work projects, Wandia is interested in reducing maternal and child health disparities and advancing social justice in public health. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on MastersPublicHealth.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Wandia Mureithi portrait photograph

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Education: Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on MastersPublicHealth.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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