Data-driven BCBS tool drills into wellness at the local level

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Index, which measures the state of America’s health, is powered by data from more than 40 million of the insurer's members. Image: BCBS

A new tool developed by Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) measures the overall health of nearly every county in the country, offering policymakers a nuanced look at each community’s most troublesome health conditions.

The BCBS Health Index identifies health outcomes at the county level by combing through more than 200 common diseases and conditions. Using data from 40 million commercially insured members, the Health Index assigns a numerical score from zero to one to virtually every county in the nation.

The national average is 0.924, meaning the average county is living at 92.4% of its optimal health. The Health Index also lists the top five conditions in each county. Nationally, the top five conditions are depression, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and substance abuse.  

The index also offers some interesting regional trends. For example, of the 15 counties with the highest Health Index score, 12 are in Nebraska. Counties with the lowest scores hail from the Southeast region (Florida, Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia).

During a press conference announcing the Health Index, Maureen Sullivan, chief strategy and innovation officer at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) highlighted the insurer’s focus on transforming healthcare by improving healthcare cost and quality, noting that data is the “engine to that transformation.”

The Health Index allows policymakers, researchers, payers and healthcare providers to look at the health of their community at a local level, and identify ways to address some of the most common illnesses. Scott Serota, president and CEO of BCBSA added that simply measuring health outcomes within each county opens up a new pathway for improvement.

“That’s the beauty of the index,” he said. “It drills down to the local level and allows communities to take actionable steps to improve the health in their community.”

By partnering with Moody’s Analytics, BCBS also uncovered a link between health outcomes and economic growth. Counties that had a higher health index score also had higher per capita income, stronger economic growth and lower unemployment rates. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics noted that a county with an average health index score that graduated to the top 1% would see incomes rise and unemployment shrink.

“We think there is a strong causal link between health performance and economic activity,” he said, adding that healthier communities are often able to quickly recover from periods of economic instability.

Moving forward, BCBS executives view the Health Index as a tool to drive down the cost of healthcare through value-based payments, allowing for targeted investments in specific illnesses along with the ability to see whether those investments are making a measurable difference.

The Health Index adds to an array of data-driven initiatives by the insurer, including BCBS Axis, which provides cost data for more than 2.6 billion procedures each year. Earlier this month, BCBSA announced it was making claims data available to some of the country’s top health researchers in order to study issues like opioid prescribing, cancer screenings and the impact of biologics.