Want to Understand the Issues that Affect Where You Live, Work, Play, and Learn? Let’s talk about a Community Assessment

Did you know that health and wellness can be influenced at the community, state, and national level?  With the widespread prevalence of chronic diseases and rising health care costs, there is a need to intervene and improve health outcomes. But where to start? Questions that you might ask yourself…do you want to know what issues concern residents in your community, state, or region...What factors impact the health or cause of issues in the community?  A community assessment is a comprehensive process that can be implemented to help collect data and gather information to support understanding of the issues that affect a community.  It is grounded in a community-driven process that engages a diverse sector of people.

In public health practice, a community assessment is the first step in the Evidence-Based Public Health Framework (Jacobs, Jones, Gabella, Spring & Brownson, 2012); a seven-step process that informs evidence-based practice. By my account, the assessment is perhaps one of the most integral steps in the process to establish a baseline understanding to guide efforts to address public health issues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a “community health assessment as a process that identifies key health needs and issues through systematic, comprehensive data collection and analysis.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,2017) The process is driven by various factors, such as public health accreditation, grant requirements, and probably the largest driver, IRS requirements for tax-exempt healthcare facilities.

What benefits and opportunities might a health care system, community, or health department receive by implementing this process? Many positive outcomes have shown to be elicited by this process, including an increase in community engagement and capacity building, drives policy, supports decision-making, and/or can even identify priority issues to invest in. In addition, the process increases the knowledge of community resources available to address the needs of a community.

A community health assessment can be daunting to some, however, there is true value in collecting information and data from the process to help paint a picture of the community and issues that affect it. For example, if community residents face barriers to accessing healthy foods, a community assessment can help that community understand why those issues exist and who it affects. The process might identify that transportation is an issue that affects access to healthy foods, or even a lack of awareness of the resources available.  Local data is often unavailable; however, the process provides an opportunity to collect local data to help paint the picture and think broadly regarding what factors truly affect the issues present in a community.

A community health assessment utilizes various methods to collect and analyze data including statistics on health status, risk factors, socio-economic factors, mortality, health needs, and community assets.Methods often entail qualitative and quantitative data collection including: survey of the community, focus groups, secondary data, and/or key informant interviews. These same methods can be applied to other needs assessments which may focus on issues other than health. Regardless of what your focus is, the assessment process leads to the same outcome: providing a baseline understanding of an issue.

In general, the community health assessment process offers an opportunity to understand how to integrate components essential in creating a sustainable healthy community. This process can draw on expertise and perspectives of stakeholders to address health related issues facing communities. Public and private leaders will also be better armed with information and incentives to make health-wise policy decisions and investments to support long-term community health promotion and chronic disease prevention.  Regardless of the scope of an assessment, it provides valuable insight into the health of a community to understand strategies necessary to improve and promote long-term community health.

Over time health systems, nonprofits and community organizations have identified successes, challenges and recommendations to effectively support implementation of the community assessment process. Specifically, data sharing across sectors, addressing social determinants of health and engaging vulnerable populations, and coordinating community health assessments across sectors in efforts to reduce silos and duplication of efforts are among the keys to success. Learn more from the ASTHO Issue Brief: Successes and Challenges in Community Health Improvement: Stories from Early Collaboration  .

In reality, to truly move the needle on issues that plague a community, it takes multi-sector collaborations to create and sustain change. Through my work with communities and health care systems conducting community health assessments, one of the common themes that emerged was that it provided them the opportunity to engage and collaborate with community partners and stakeholders to collectively affect change and improve long-term health outcomes. As the saying goes, “it takes a village.” Sometimes it takes a while to see change, but it is worth the investment in the long-term.