Population Health: Definition and Background

Today, much of the discourse on health occurs under the rubric of “population health” which has evolved over the past two decades and builds on a long tradition of public health, community health and health promotion. Dating back to the early 1970’s, Canada has played a leading role in the development of the population health concept through its internationally acclaimed work in the area of health promotion. Canada’s reputation is grounded in its strong contribution to community health, health advocacy, healthy public policy, and the Healthy Cities/Communities movement(22).

Our current understandings of population health reflect the evolution of our thinking related to the definition of “health”. We acknowledge that health is a capacity or resource for everyday living that enables us to pursue our goals, acquire skills and education, grow and satisfy personal aspirations(2,26). This view of health provides the foundation for our understanding of a population health approach, which recognizes that multiple factors and conditions contribute to health. In 1997, the Federal, Provincial, Territorial Advisory Committee on Population Health defined population health as follows:

Population health refers to the health of a population as measured by health status indicators and as influenced by social, economic and physical environments, personal health practices, individual capacity and coping skills, human biology, early childhood development, and health services. As an approach, population health focuses on the interrelated conditions and factors that influence the health of populations over the life course, identifies systematic variations in their patterns of occurrence, and applies the resulting knowledge to develop and implement policies and actions to improve the health and well-being of those populations.

A population health approach addresses the entire range of individual and collective factors that determine health. Population health strategies are designed to affect whole groups or populations of people. The overarching goals of a population health approach are to maintain and improve the health status of the entire population and to reduce inequities in health status between population groups. The outcomes or benefits of a population health approach extend beyond improved health status outcomes. A healthier population makes more productive contributions to overall societal development, requires less support in the form of health care and social benefits, and is better able to support and sustain itself over the long term(17). Actions that bring about positive health also bring wider social, economic and environmental benefits for the population at large. They include a sustainable and equitable health care system, strengthened social cohesion and citizen engagement, increased national growth and productivity and improved quality of life.

Excerpt from: The Population Health Template Key Elements and Actions That Define A Population Health Approach (2001)