Inaugural National Health Impact Assessment Meeting: What We Learned

Apr 11, 2012, 5:30 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

At the recent first-ever National Health Impact Assessment (HIA) meeting, convened by the Health Impact Project and partners, the break-time chatter was just as fascinating as the official sessions. Attendees ranged from a public health graduate student who applied for a scholarship to attend the meeting as part an independent study on HIA, to a veteran of the San Francisco Department of Health who has been conducting health impact assessments for over a decade.

The meeting addressed the burgeoning number of HIAs completed or in progress, but it also addressed issues related to determining the need for an HIA, preparing and engaging stakeholders, and helping HIA practitioners both assess the findings and determine how best to convey them and make recommendations. The wide range of HIAs presented spanned a wide range of disciplines including housing, transportation, built environment, incarceration, community development and more.

We found a session on policy HIAs to be especially interesting as a tool to look at the potential for use of HIA to impact health outcomes. Examples included:

School Discipline Policies

Human Impact Partners is nearing completion of an HIA on school discipline policies, including zero tolerance (suspending or expelling students for any infraction) and restorative justice. In Los Angeles, Oakland and Salinas school districts, the HIA analyzed how these policies impact those being disciplined, other students and the broader communities through pathways to health outcomes from drop-out rates and educational attainment, prison, violence, drug abuse, mental health and community cohesion.

Wisconsin Treatment Instead of Prisons

WISDOM, a statewide congregation-based community organization in Wisconsin, has been advocating for state funding for treatment alternatives to prison for almost a decade. In 2006, WISDOM and their allies succeeded in convincing the state to fund treatment alternatives such as drug courts, mental health courts and bail diversion projects in seven counties. WISDOM has been funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Roadmaps to Health Community Grant to work on a policy that would increase the funding to a statewide level. Human Impact Partners is conducting an HIA to answer the question: How would increasing treatment alternatives to prison impact the health of individuals targeted for incarceration, their families, their communities and the state?

Another theme that emerged throughout the conference was the critical nature of engaging communities and diverse partners throughout every step of the HIA. During a plenary session, Health Impact Project director Aaron Wernham said of the recommendations from one HIA he conducted in Alaska, "A lot of these recommendations fall outside anyone’s regulatory authority. If you’re going to get anything done there needs to be a strong relationship with the community." Wernham said he expects to convene a national meeting again in about a year and a half. And he knows they’ll need a bigger facility next time!

Catch up on the rest of our coverage of the National HIA Meeting:

  • Aaron Wernham, director of the Health Impact Project, talked with NewPublicHealth about the key conversations at the conference, how far HIA has come as a field, and what's next.
  • James Hodge filled us in on a new report finding that some existing laws on the books across the nation offer critical opportunities to improve Americans’ health through the use of health impact assessments.
  • County Health Roadmaps grantee PedNet talked about their efforts to improve transportation as a means toward improving community health, as well as a related HIA project.
  • Arthur Wendel, team lead for the Healthy Community Design Initiative at the CDC about what it takes to build healthy communities, and the role of HIAs.
  • One example of a truly innovative HIA was the assessment of a proposed casino in Kansas.
  • Housing policy HIAs were also featured at the conference, and HIA practitioners from Ohio and Portland spoke with NewPublicHealth about their work.

Bonus Link: For more on the conference, and background readings on HIA, have a look at the HIA 101 Blog.

>>Weigh In: The Health Impact Project has a tool to let HIA practitioners submit information about a health impact assessment they’ve completed or have in progress. Are you working on an HIA that wasn’t presented at the annual meeting? Tell us about it and add your work to HIP’s list in progress.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.