Community Needs Assessment Drives Planning and Improvement

Updated on January 16, 2012

By Chris W. Brussalis

The rapid and constant change in healthcare is daunting.  Current government regulation and the threat of future mandates are changing the landscape in policy, economics, and practice.  Add this to everyday, fast-paced advances in technology, workforce demands, and dynamic community needs, and healthcare leaders will be pressed to manage and allocate resources like never before.

For healthcare organizations to continue providing high quality services in a cost-efficient manner, it is paramount to follow a rigorous discipline of community needs assessment, strategic planning, and continuous improvement.  They provide a guide for any long-term decision-making or dynamic planning process.

Community Needs Assessment

A community needs assessment is a thorough review using research and data-rich analysis to enable healthcare organizations in developing compelling solutions that satisfy community needs, capitalize on market opportunities, and mitigate possible threats.  Successfully delivering on mission now and into the future requires an understanding of the community’s needs and projecting what those needs will be in the months and years ahead.

A thorough understanding of community healthcare status and needs is vital.  With this information, healthcare providers can compare current community needs with their capacity and ability to deliver to meet them.  A community needs assessment should also predict demographic and socioeconomic changes and subsequent healthcare needs of the community.  This data is critical to the effectiveness of a strategic planning process.  The community needs assessment is primary data to feed into the situational analysis of a healthcare provider’s strategic plan.

Strategic Planning

A strategic planning process typically includes three phases:  Situational Analysis, Strategy Development, and Strategy Implementation.  Using objective market data and engaging stakeholders throughout the process builds consensus and reliability around long-term direction.

A community needs assessment, identification of external market needs, and an introspection of the organization’s capacity to meet community’s needs feeds into the situational analysis.  These critical, first steps enable healthcare organizations to position themselves with greater accuracy during tempestuous times and to capitalize on periods of growth and market opportunity.

An organization’s ability to utilize people, processes, knowledge, and resources to deliver on its mission, to meet community needs, and to fulfill its vision is dependent upon its capacity.  Using the community needs assessment and organizational capacity review, the situational analysis culminates with defining a compelling vision that clearly articulates a healthcare organization’s desired future state.  It validates core values to drive a common purpose and develops unity behind a single mission to clearly define a reason for existence.

Strategy development utilizes analytical methods to build a plan towards achieving an organization’s vision.  It defines organizational direction.  This step involves the creation of strategies to capitalize on opportunities while mitigating threats and leveraging organizational infrastructure in the most effective and efficient manner.  This results in a number of priorities and strategy alternatives for the organization to consider.  The outcome is development and adoption of a specific, forward-looking strategic plan that is in alignment with the organization’s vision and mission.

Strategy implementation sets the stage for continuous improvement.  During strategy implementation, tactical plans and methods of evaluation are developed to enable continuous improvement.  It requires an action plan with accountability.  Successful implementation plans require prioritization of strategic goals and initiatives through short-, mid-, and long-term tactical planning.  Without a detailed, realistic implementation plan, a healthcare organization’s strategic plan is merely a paperweight or a shelf ornament – neither of which can help navigate a turbulent economic landscape.

Continuous Improvement

The information collected and analyzed through a systematic evaluation process can be leveraged to identify areas for continuous improvement.  To continually improve, an organization must assess how customers value specific elements of their plan against customer perceptions of the organization’s ability to perform or deliver on them.

Evaluation data will reveal the success or failure of a strategy.  Even failure is not failure if it is identified early enough to enable improvement.  Evaluation and continuous improvement ensure that a bad strategy does not become worse and a good strategy continues to be a success.  Continually improving strategy will keep an organization relevant in a changing economy, in both bull and bear markets.

In a cycle when cash is tight, now is the time for organizations to critically assess their market position and performance and to plan accordingly.  The dynamic planning process utilizes a number of tools to help organizations survive challenging periods or even help catapult them to the next level.  Ultimately, these steps position organizations ahead of the game.

Chris W. Brussalis is President & CEO of The Hill Group, Inc., a national management consulting firm based in Carnegie.  He is also Adjunct Professor of Management and Policy at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University.

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