December 18, 2013

How healthy are our communities?

Community Health Needs Assessments provide critical information for Kaiser Permanente’s community benefit work.

Good health extends beyond the doctor’s office and the hospital. In fact, it begins in communities, in places where people spend the majority of their everyday lives – in homes, schools, workplaces, on streets and sidewalks going from one place to another. When communities suffer from poor health, it follows that people living in those communities will suffer as well.

To strengthen and support healthy communities, those entrusted with this work need to have a starting point from which to assess a community’s health needs and assets. Determining such a baseline requires asking a variety of questions about the indicators of overall health in a community. Such questions might include:

  • What are the most significant health issues affecting the community?
  • What are the factors and community conditions driving these health problems?
  • What does the data say about health inequities faced by specific subgroups and geographic subpopulations?
  • What are the assets and resources in the community to address the identified health needs?

“There are a wide range of health indicators that we can study to give us a picture of the physical, social and economic wellbeing of a community,” explains Jean Nudelman, director of community benefit programs for Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California Region and national lead for community health needs assessments. “While we may not always think of these indicators as being connected to health, each has an impact on the total health of the community and the opportunities and challenges that community members face when making decisions about their own health.”

Community health needs assessments play an important role

Community health needs assessments, or CHNAs, serve a critical role in enabling health care organizations, public health agencies, community groups and policymakers to identify the most pressing needs in their communities and to make decisions about how to most effectively deploy their resources to address those needs. Ultimately, CHNAs can help inform investment strategies and community actions that can make a difference in the health of communities.

Kaiser Permanente has been conducting CHNAs for more than 10 years to better understand the health and vitality of the communities we serve. Our Community Benefit efforts have always been directly tied to the health needs of the communities we serve. But now, with the roll-out of health care reform, new regulations under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act require all non-profit hospitals to conduct CHNAs every three years under a more rigorous set of standards.

“The whole idea of conducting CHNAs resonates with our values of accountability to our communities and using evidence to inform our decisions,” says Loel Solomon, PhD, Kaiser Permanente’s vice president for community health. “At the same time, we know from experience that conducting CHNAs can be a resource-intensive undertaking. We knew we had to find a new way of doing things that streamlined the process, so that we could spend more time figuring out how to address needs rather than crunching the data.”

Meeting the challenge: Kaiser Permanente CHNA data platform

To address this challenge, Kaiser Permanente worked with the Center for Applied Research and Environmental Systems; the Institute for People, Places, and Possibility and Kaiser Permanente’s own Utility for Care Data Analysis to develop the Kaiser Permanente CHNA Data Platform. That platform was designed to assist Kaiser Permanente and its community partners in conducting CHNAs for their respective communities.

The Kaiser Permanente CHNA Data Platform includes a focused set of nearly 100 community health indicators that allow users to understand what is driving health outcomes in particular communities. The platform provides the capacity to view, map and analyze those indicators, as well as access thousands of additional layers of public data. The platform has been designed to create a standard data report that provides information for all Kaiser Permanente communities, organizing the data by demographics, key health drivers and health outcomes.

In addition to developing and sharing the Kaiser Permanente CHNA Data platform free of charge to our communities, our work was also leveraged to build a national platform that is being used by non-profit organizations, state and local health departments, financial institutions and others seeking to conduct assessments and collaborate to improve community health.

“Kaiser Permanente’s CHNA Data Platform has not only greatly enhanced our CHNA process, it has come to serve as a resource for other community and public health entities to assist them in collecting important data about the populations they serve,” explains Solomon. “Through the process of creating the platform, we were able to leverage our own learnings as an organization to more widely inform the field of public health.”

Making a greater impact

For more than 65 years, Kaiser Permanente has demonstrated its commitment to the health of individuals and the communities it serves through the care and coverage provided and through community benefit investments aimed at ending disparities in health care. As the organization continues to evolve its work with an ever-changing health care environment, the information that it gathers about the health of our communities, through community health needs assessments, will become ever more vital to shaping the impact on health outcomes.

Gathering data through the CHNA process is only one piece of the larger process to create greater health in our communities. Once the data has been pulled, leaders from within Kaiser Permanente and other institutions are then charged with interpreting the data and prioritizing the community health needs that are most urgent.

The next step of the process requires leaders to develop implementation strategies. These evidence-informed plans will help to determine how and where to apply our own resources and assets as a health care organization, as well as evidence-based strategies already in existence, to make the most informed and effective investments that will truly benefit the communities we serve.

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s Community Health Needs Assessments

Explore the Kaiser Permanente CHNA Data Platform

Explore the CHNA Toolkit on the Community Commons