Public Health Needs Assessment
by
Chris Lovato
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0054

Introduction

At the most basic level, needs assessment is about identifying the gap between “what is” and “what should be.” The needs assessment process is used to set priorities for programs and allocation of resources. It is based on the assumption that a given community or population will have more needs than can be met with existing resources, and setting priorities is critical. Although much of the literature on needs assessment focuses on identifying needs, it is important to recognize that a comprehensive approach includes conducting a capacity assessment. This involves identifying assets within the community that will support efforts to address needs. While the very definition of a needs assessment emphasizes the use of an objective approach to identifying needs, it must be acknowledged that it is also a subjective and political process. For example, who is consulted to identify needs? Whose needs are they? How are “needs” defined? Who judges the importance of needs? How do we account for cultural differences? Needs assessment is one of the first steps involved in planning a program. Although there are a variety of approaches described in the literature, models for needs assessment involve a systematic process that includes focusing the study, collecting and analyzing data, identifying areas of need, setting priorities, identifying solutions, and evaluating the needs assessment. Common themes associated with a successful process are highlighted in various models of needs assessment: (1) engaging stakeholders to participate and inform the process, (2) using multiple methods to collect data (e.g., surveys, existing records, interviews, observation), and (3) setting priorities. Many authors affirm that needs assessment should be an ongoing and continuous process since communities and the environment in which they exist are constantly evolving.

Introductory Works

Available online for community action groups or people who are new to the area are several practical resources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2010, Cavanaugh and Chadwick 2005, Work Group for Community Health and Development 2007, and Health Canada 2000. Wright, et al. 1998 offers a concise description of what needs assessment is and why it is important. McKenzie and Smeltzer 2009 provides a general introduction to the steps in a needs assessment. Altschuld and Kumar 2010 gives a detailed overview and guides practitioners through each phase of conducting a needs assessment.

  • Altschuld, J. W., and D. D. Kumar. 2010. Needs assessment: An overview. Los Angeles: SAGE.

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    The first in a series of books based on a three-phase model. A broad overview of the steps involved in implementing each phase of a needs assessment is presented. Appendix includes an annotated outline for a needs assessment report. Four concise companion books by the same authors focus on a more detailed treatment of Phases I–III as well as covering analysis and prioritization (see Textbooks).

  • Cavanaugh, Sue, and Keith Chadwick. 2005. Health needs assessment: A practical guide. London: Health Development Agency.

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    Provides background and practical assistance to anyone involved in conducting health needs assessment. A five-step process is outlined with helpful hints and advice to support planners. The process is illustrated in twelve case studies representing a range of populations. Useful list of skills required and tools available for needs assessment.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010. Community Health Assessment and Group Evaluation (CHANGE) action guide: Building a foundation of knowledge to prioritize community needs. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services.

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    This resource is designed for community stakeholders to identify strengths and areas for improvement in their community by gathering data, prioritizing issues, and identifying strategies that support change. This very practical guide outlines the action steps for completing a community health assessment. It focuses on a range of strategies that consider policies, systems, and environmental conditions.

  • Health Canada. 2000. Community Health Needs Assessment: A Guide for First Nations and Inuit Health Authorities. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.

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    Written for community stakeholders. This handbook outlines a step-by-step approach for designing and implementing community needs assessment. Developed for Canadian community/tribal council/regional Inuit association planners and regional First Nations and Inuit organizations. Although focused on aboriginal populations, the tips, checklists, and forms are applicable to a wide range of populations.

  • McKenzie, J. F., and J. L. Smeltzer. 2009. Planning, implementing, and evaluating health promotion programs: A primer. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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    This introductory text to health promotion planning outlines the basic concepts and skills needed in program planning. Chapter 4 explains the steps involved in the needs assessment process.

  • Work Group for Community Health and Development. 2007. Assessing Community Needs and Resources. Community Tool Box. Univ. of Kansas.

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    Located within the Community Tool Box website, this “toolbox” (Chapter 3 of the original document) has been recognized as the world’s largest resource for supporting community health and capacity building. It offers users excellent support for conducting a community-based needs assessment and includes asset mapping. Provides a practical step-by-step guide with resources, real-world examples, and hyperlinks to other sites.

  • Wright, J., D. R. R. Williams, and J. Wilkinson. 1998. Development and importance of health needs assessment. British Medical Journal 316:1310–1313.

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    In this article, the authors define health needs assessment and why it is important and provide a discussion of the challenges in defining needs. Health needs are identified as areas that benefit from health care as well as social and environmental changes.

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