Healthcare does not exist in a vacuum. As hospitals look inward to try to positively impact the way they work with patients, they are turning to the power of metrics and data to learn more about the populations they serve and how to deliver a quality experience. And in every community, different social environments dictate the way healthcare is organized and run.

This is why healthcare organizers and their connections in communities across the US are encouraging patients to complete a survey assessing health needs of a local population. Called Community Health Need Assessments, (CHNA) these studies are required for tax-exempt hospitals and offer greater insight into how organizations can better accommodate for socioeconomic needs.

As 2018 gets into full swing, we are likely to see updated CHNAs from hospitals as notices are sent out. These surveys are meant to be distributed to a diverse population, and though they are required for these hospitals to retain their nonprofit status, they present an opportunity for them to connect with community stakeholders and improve population health outcomes.

The first step to any good CHNA is outreach to local organizations that have ties with the community. Common organizations that may be useful for these sorts of initiatives are family advisory councils or anyone that already has a hand in health in the area—and those that may have a vested interest in improving it. The passion for improving outcomes and connections to patients are instrumental in ensuring that surveys get to the right people.

These organizations can also provide some input into proper questions to ask on the survey. CHNAs lack any sort of standardized questioning given the highly specific communities that may be assessed with them. While there is certain to be overlap in terms of considerations for populations, factors such as socioeconomic status, physician network, and transport requirements can change the relevant questions in a survey. The CDC has cited demographics, healthcare access, and health factors as common variables worth exploring through a CHNA.

Answers can also determine which health issues have the biggest impact on a community. Prioritization should be determined by the urgency and severity of issues identified. Recurring questions or comments from survey results may also indicate latent areas of improvement among members of a community. However, this is also something that hospitals should speak to community organizations about. Giving them a say in the final decision and planning is a great way to give populations a voice into how their healthcare is handled.

Since most patient health factors are determined outside of the hospital, the onus is on healthcare providers to properly interpret survey results and empower patients to improve their own health even outside of visits. CHNAs give providers the knowledge and data they need to be proactive in how they handle patient engagement. Reaching out and educating communities or offering resources necessary for prevention and information can make costly visits less necessary and address identified concerns.

The patient engagement movement is gaining traction, and the existence of CHNAs is evidence of a concerted effort to involve patients in the decision-making process for healthcare providers. However, when it comes to CHNAs, hospitals will only get out of it what they put into. With the right effort and outreach programs, they can become a force for good in the communities they serve.