THE GEOGRAPHY OF DISEASE
There are plenty of doctors, but no white coats, in the Cambridge, Mass. offices of Optum Labs™.
With a focus on science and discovery, the research and innovation collaborative examines data, not patients. Optum® partners across the entire health system in helping solve health care s biggest challenges. Its goal is to help employers, insurance companies, providers, life science organizations, governments and others understand health care in all its complexity, and find ways to improve care and reduce the costs.
The Optum-Community Health dataset tracks close to 100 different health metrics in more than 300 communities nationwide, enabling researchers to quickly visualize and understand key differences and similarities across markets. The proprietary dataset provides researchers with information from more than 100 million patients—with all the data anonymized to ensure patient privacy.
It offers comparisons of health, well-being, social factors and healthcare system quality in communities across the U.S. Using this data, employers can investigate which interventions can improve care for their employees, and where their implementation will have the greatest impact.
Some of the regional variations are easy to understand. The higher prevalence d hypertension in the South coincides with the higher incidence of a variety of other serious conditions there, including diabetes and high cholesterol, according to Optum Labs CEO, Dr. Paul Bleicher, M.D., Ph.D. The high incidence of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the Ohio River Valley, particularly in West Virginia and Kentucky, correlates with communities that report some of the highest levels of smoking per capita.
Another example: There are more reported cases of depression per capita in the Rocky Mountain states than in other regions. That may be because a higher percentage of Rocky Mountain residents are depressed—but it may also be because they are "more likely to go to the doctor, a more likely to tell the doctor about their symptoms, or the doctor may be more likely to diagnose depression than do doctors in other regions," says Bleicher.
Sometimes even a dataset as sophisticated as the one at Optum Labs is insufficient to provide insights on some findings. For instance, none of the almost 100 factors tracked correlates closely with the high incidence of lower back pain in the Great Plains states.
In all the regions, by appreciating the measures of community behavior that are correlated with—and in some cases are known to be responsible for—these diseases and conditions," employers can fund preventive health care measures and interventions in a way that will deliver maximum value to them and their employees, Bleicher says.