Humana, University of Houston started a pop-health-focused med school 2 years ago. Then COVID-19 hit

Two years ago, Humana invested $15 million into a new medical school at the University of Houston (UH) that’s focused integrating population health into medical education.

Now, it’s seeing some of the early fruits of that labor, according to a new report.  

Since December 2018, the Humana Integrated Health Systems Science Institute at UH has kick-started more than 15 programs and provided 10,000 hours of interdisciplinary medical education to 6,000 people including UH students, faculty, staff and Humana associates.

LeChauncy Woodard, M.D., director of the institute, told Fierce Healthcare that it is designed to harness the strength of both a large payer and a clinical enterprise.

"Having the connection with Humana as a payer, as a different sector allows us to really think innovatively,” she said.

RELATED: AMA releases calls for protections for medical residents on pandemic’s front lines

Humana’s cash infusion included $10 million over the next decade to support UH’s College of Medicine and $5 million to endow the chairs of the five clinical colleges, Tray Cockerell, director of strategic relationships at Humana, told Fierce Healthcare.

The Humana Institute unites UH’s existing colleges of medicine, nursing, pharmacy, social work and optometry for the medical school. Cockerell said that the new school will welcome its first class of medical students in July.  

In nursing, the institute has launched a number of programs aimed at broadening nurses’ training to include population health, the social determinants of health and value-based care. For example, nursing students have joined Humana social workers on field visits, an opportunity to get out of the traditional clinical setting.

“Nursing really has been sort of our first wave,” Cockerell said. “It’s truly been a tremendous success for us.”

RELATED: Humana—’Healthy days’ up across all Medicare Advantage markets for first time

Woodard said there’s also been a focus on integrating virtual care into the nursing training. In the report, Humana says that as a result of the updates to the program more students are considering careers in home nursing or in telehealth.

COVID-19's impact

The coronavirus pandemic threw the importance of that education into even starker relief. Cockerell said that as clinical rotations changed across the country, the institute adjusted its training programs to go digital.

As such, nursing students shadowed Humana nursing teams as they conducted virtual visits with patients instead of shadowing them on more traditional in-person patient encounters, he said.

Woodard said that the pandemic forced the institute’s staff to take a hard look at the relationships they could leverage as it adapted its work to COVID-19.

"Certainly, we’re all facing a lot of challenges,” she said. “What it has allowed us to do as part of the institute is allowed us to think about the opportunities that exist.”

RELATED: Why Papa, Humana think it’s crucial to 'make noise' about the impacts of loneliness amid COVID-19

The institute team also pivoted in its social work programs, he said. Students in that program were likely to miss critical field hours due to social distancing under the pandemic, so Humana harnessed its existing relationship with Papa to enroll 50 social work students as Pals to conduct virtual and telephonic visits with seniors.

According to Humana’s report, within just a few days the students had scheduled more than 1,100 visits with seniors over the next six months.

This was ultimately a win in multiple ways, Cockerell said, as the students were both paid for their time and able to earn the necessary credits while the visits were a major boost to lonely seniors and students alike.

“It’s addressing loneliness and social isolation in our members, and it’s addressing loneliness and social isolation in our students,” he said.

Woodard said that as the institute looks ahead to its first class of medical students and its work in the future, she hopes it becomes a key factor in tackling significant health disparities that persist. The pandemic has further highlighted just how impactful those disparities can be, she said.

“I would love to see the institute be a mechanism for helping to look at those problems,” she said.