Community Health Assessment and Improvement Plans: Integrating Research and Practice

By Ian Goldstein, Web and New Media Specialist

The following is an excerpt from NACCHO’s latest podcast featuring Gretchen Sampson, Director, Polk County (WI) Health Department, and Julie Willems Van Dijk, Associate Scientist at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. 

NACCHO: Community health assessments and community health improvement plans (CHAs/CHIPS) are essential and complex functions of a local health department. Julie, you’re in research and Gretchen, your work is practice-based. How are your skill sets complementary and how have the integrated findings of your two projects made a difference?

Sampson: Well, our skill sets are very complementary because Julie has done what I do in her previous life and is very familiar with what practice involves at the local level. I think we both know that to do community health improvement work, it’s all about relationships—relationships with partners and with the people that live in your community. I think that’s how we accomplish what we do, by really nurturing those relationships throughout the years and calling on those partners when we want to look at the health of our population and plan strategies to deal with health focus areas identified.

Willems Van Dijk: Yes, I definitely agree with Gretchen. One of the things we have been able to do with the project that we’ve presented at NACCHO is look at this in a truly integrated way between practice and research. One component of the project has been looking at doing an environmental scan with our local health departments and finding out what their needs are and being very responsive in terms of addressing many of those needs right away, in real time. Another component of the project has been studying what’s already been done in our state. Wisconsin is somewhat unique in that for over 20 years, we’ve had a requirement that local health departments conduct community health assessments, so we’re really a rich source of data around this topic. We’ve been able, through the University of Wisconsin and a practice-based research network grant, to study what has already happened in terms of community health assessment and improvement plans.

I have to echo what Gretchen said about that as a researcher: The practice community really informed me and said to me, “You can’t do a study of the quality of community health assessments and improvement plans simply from looking at paper documents or Web-based documents; you really need our input.” So, as part of the study design, we not only reviewed the paper documents and what was available online, but we also did a survey with local health officers to get their input on the quality of their community health assessment and improvement planning process. We had a really good response rate, upwards of 75 percent on those surveys and I really think it is because people knew me, knew that this work was really going to be used in an effective way to move progress forward.

Hear more from this interview, including Sampson and Willem Van Dijk’s lessons learned from integrating research and practice to improve the CHA/CHIP process, by listening to the podcast.

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