For good and ill, the places where people live and work greatly influence their well-being. National Women’s Health Week, which begins on Mother’s Day each year, provides a chance to highlight the importance of finding ways to improve health for individuals and communities.
Drivers of health for men, women, and children include a wide range of factors, such as employment and education opportunities, access to transportation, and interactions with the criminal justice system. Yet, historically, governments and private interests have made policy and programmatic decisions in these areas without consideration of the potential downstream effects—positive or negative—on Americans’ health. Those decisions often have not taken into account the potential impacts that could affect people differently depending on gender, race, income, geography, or other characteristics.
In recent years, however, more decision-makers, communities, agencies, and others have begun assessing these potential effects using tools and approaches, such as health impact assessments (HIAs), that help spotlight the possible health consequences of proposed policies or projects. These approaches also promote cross-sector collaboration by bringing together community members, business interests, and other stakeholders.
Those developing HIAs employ a systematic process and rigorous methodology to examine the potential health effects of decisions in a wide array of sectors, such as public works, transportation, housing, and community development. Over the past decade, governments and organizations across the country completed more than 400 HIAs.
To help more localities use this approach, the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, created a cross-sector toolkit for health. This resource, available since last spring, provides a collection of HIAs, guides, and other research and data resources to support efforts to broadly consider health when making decisions. The toolkit is searchable and updated regularly.
The growing use of assessments and similar evidence-based approaches are encouraging in light of findings from an ongoing study, commissioned by the Health Impact Project, that is examining HIAs’ influence on decision-making processes and outcomes. Preliminary results, summarized in a brief published in February, demonstrate that, among other benefits, HIAs can strengthen community engagement and help lead to decisions that advance equitable access to health-promoting resources and protect communities from environmental risks. HIAs can help maximize health benefits and minimize preventable risks, such as chronic disease and injuries.
Individuals’ choices and access to quality health care represent just part of the equation as policymakers look to ensure all people are as healthy as possible. For example, social, geographic, and environmental factors may contribute to a woman’s risk of dying in the U.S. during or within one year of pregnancy. As more communities look to fully understand and address contributing factors beyond the health care and public health systems—from gender, education, and housing programs to transportation and employment policies— those involved in decision-making processes can benefit from taking advantage of the resources available through the Health Impact Project.
Stacey Millett directs the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.