Carry out a needs assessment

A needs assessment is an important step in planning and commissioning services. It will help you understand the needs of the population and the type and distribution of health and care services that will bring the greatest benefit to the local population. A useful definition of need is ‘the capacity to benefit from services’. This definition keeps the focus of needs assessment on interventions that can produce real benefits, and on identifying people who could benefit from receiving those interventions.

Before undertaking a needs assessment you should understand the underlying causes of health inequalities.

A needs assessment should

  • assess the level of the need for public services
  • identify the extent of the gap between need and supply
  • describe the pattern of supply and effectiveness of current services.

How to assess local health needs

  • Determine the scope of the project including the population.
  • Identify the key resources, such as data, people and time, needed to carry out the needs assessment successfully.
  • Use a collaborative approach to bring together people from different backgrounds and organisations to get a full picture of service need, delivery and priorities.
  • Understand your data - bring in someone with the appropriate skills early on in the process to facilitate the analysis, collation and presentation of a broad range of data.

A successful needs assessment will provide

  • a summary of the areas of unmet need
  • objectives to work towards meeting that need
  • a decision on how to use resources in the most effective and efficient way.

Types of needs assessment

1. Epidemiological needs assessment

An epidemiological approach studies and analyses the patterns, causes and effects of health needs within defined populations.

  • Data is used to estimate the size and composition of the population, possibly including trends over time and details about key population subgroups.
  • Data can be used to understand the social determinants of health and care need such as socioeconomic deprivation, employment, education, housing and environment.
  • Identify the level of need within the population as indicated by incidence and prevalence of disease.
  • Provide a description of the current provision and effectiveness of services.

A broad range of public health data is available from the Scottish Public Health Observatory’s (ScotPHO) Online Profiles Tool. 

2. Comparative needs assessment

  • The services in the population under study are compared and contrasted with those provided at a different time, place or to a different population group.

3. Corporate needs assessment

  • The use of mainly qualitative information to understand the views of stakeholders about current needs and priorities for future provision.

Information Services Division (ISD) Scotland has produced a useful summary of the data sources available, and more detailed guidance on how to use them and the process of conducting a needs assessment.

The Scottish Public Health Network provides some examples of needs assessments (external website) to look at before starting your own.