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What is a Community Health Needs Assessment? 4 Tips to Start

Team writing on sticky notes trying to figure out what is a community health needs assessment.

Hospitals typically conduct a Community Health Needs Assessment to comply with state requirements or to maintain 501(c)3 status. However, emerging trends around health outcomes and health equity have sparked organizations to update and better align their CHNA processes toward highlighting community needs, equity, population health concerns, service access, affordability and quality.

In a research study, The National Library of Medicine found that "Social determinants of health impact 80% of health outcomes from acute to chronic disorders, and attempts are underway to provide these data elements to clinicians."

Because of the short- and long-term effects of SDOHs, it's important that hospitals assess community needs. This way, they can find solutions to improve quality of life, identify underserved populations and establish connections with the community.

What can your organization do to revamp its CHNA process to focus on community needs, equity, care access, affordability and quality? In the next section, we'll cover how to rethink the planning and early steps of your CHNA so you have the tools on hand to capture better data and market research.

Planning for your CHNA

Planning for the CHNA is as important as conducting it. By developing your hospital game plan, you can:

  • invest your limited financial and people resources wisely, making it more cost-effective;
  • focus on evidence-based interventions that improve health status;
  • choose the right partners; and
  • pressure-test confirmation bias through a data and analytics-first approach.

In the first two months, hospitals should focus on the who, what and when of CHNA planning. Below, we outline four ways to start your CHNA.

4 ways to start your CHNA

1. Begin broadly: Weeks 1 and 2

At the beginning of the CHNA process, it's essential to collect general information on important resources. In the first two weeks, you should identify internal participants at all levels and roles. This can include everyone from frontline staff to executives, service line clinicians and data teams. Some may participate in the CHNA; others might be the ones who champion and lead it.

After you're done identifying key people in weeks one and two, begin defining key resources and milestones. You should plan to accomplish this in weeks two through four. Important things to consider in this timeframe include:

  • realistic staff availability and timelines;
  • CHNA operational expenses; and
  • securing sufficient funds for the entire assessment process.

2. Review your last CHNA

In addition to defining key resources and milestones during weeks two through four, hospitals should review their prior CHNA. Specifically, look at:

  • participant input and feedback;
  • qualitative research from focus groups;
  • how and when data were collected; and
  • and health improvement outcomes.

Note that this information-gathering stage shouldn’t focus on the prior year’s CHNA target population. While hospital teams can’t help but digest this information when reviewing their last assessment, it’s important to suspend judgment during early planning, as new populations may now have greater unmet needs.

In other words, your new CHNA shouldn’t only focus on the reporting and working on the same factors and measures. Instead, this should be your chance to look at your data to find the greatest need. From there, you can focus efforts on the measures that need the most work.

This is the last phase of reworking your planning. In the next two sections, we'll go deeper into how to conduct your CHNA assessment, thinking about partners and data.

3. Assemble diverse community partners

During weeks two through eight, you'll want to update the community partners that work closely with your CHNA's population.

For example, let's say more migrant families have moved into your community since your last CHNA report. In this case, you may want to add specific community partners who help them meet their needs, such as translators, displacement organizations, etc.

To reflect and account for these changes, your CHNA should include input and representation from:

  • community members at large;
  • healthcare, education and philanthropic institutions;
  • the community, ranging from the underserved to public health experts;
  • the local health department; and
  • community-based organizations.

In some cases, hospitals can only have a limited number of collaborators. This makes choosing the right ones even more crucial. A small pool of community partners won’t be as representative and diverse as a larger one. However, by getting the best organizations together, you'll gain the best experience, data and insights into the community.

 4. Discover the data

Identifying needed data sources allows you to piece your CHNA together and address any gaps. Hospitals should collect and analyze CHNA data from:

  • prior assessments and internal sources;
  • publicly available secondary sources;
  • proprietary third parties; and
  • validated SDOH sources.

These sources generate quantitative and qualitative data for comprehensive collection and analysis. Both tell the community’s story with accuracy.

Most importantly, last year’s data should be considered outdated. A lot can change about a hospital’s patients and markets in a year. By looking at how you'll obtain your data, you can check biases early on while making sure you don't have any data gaps.

Remember: This step is to identify sources, not data collection and analysis. Just as hospitals wait to identify a CHNA vision, they must wait before drawing early conclusions.

Essential next steps to meet community health needs

The CHNA helps a hospital understand its community. It also identifies and targets unmet community health needs. This process doesn't happen overnight, but by following the steps above, you can set the stage for success and improve your CHNA process. You can also simplify the CHNA process with these three key steps.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, DataGen can assist. Our experts can help you throughout every CHNA stage with toolkits, templates and analytics expertise. Contact DataGen today for best-in-class CHNA preparation. 


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