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2a – Developing plans: population needs and service use

Developing plans broadly entails understanding local population health needs and patterns of service utilisation (this section), identification of evidence-based options for improvement action (2c) and agreement of priorities for implementation (2d). Traditional health needs assessment looks at populations through the "lens" of aggregate data focussed on specific diseases (in contrast to population health management; see 2b below). It often depends largely upon routinely-collected national data derived partly from non-clinical sources, but will also incorporate local clinical data where this is available.

Assessment and planning footprints in Wales
Multiple directives require pairing of population health needs assessments (HNAs) and planning outputs across various geographic and/ or structural footprints in Wales. An overview of these is provided on the following page:

Healthcare assessment and planning footprints in Wales: A summary of assessment and planning requirements

Data-centric approaches
Traditional needs assessment involves collating and presenting relevant health intelligence data available from national and health board sources. Where this is the only approach utilised, it may be termed “desk-based needs assessment”. These data can take several forms, but typically address topics/ conditions in isolation; take poor account of co-morbidities; and lack insights from linkage between datasets. Indicators relating to process/ performance or outcomes of interest can be considered as follows:

  • Epidemiological data: Describe disease characteristics by person, place and time—or other related characteristics, such as sex, ethnicity, local area deprivation, etc. Often these data will be analysed and presented as condition prevalence (perhaps by age or sex, on a specified geographic footprint and ideally with time trends) or incidence (e.g. new cases per 100,000 population, during a one year period).
  • Service activity data: Describe how people with given or grouped conditions utilise available services (e.g. telephone consultation frequency or hospital admission rates).
  • Comparative data: Where available, data from elsewhere can be juxtaposed with local prevalence/ incidence or service activity data. For example, measured prevalence may be contrasted with expected prevalence (often estimated via research literature) to explore potential gaps in case ascertainment, or suggest a locally-excessive burden of disease. Differing rates of attendance for screening interventions could indicate update barriers such poor access; differences may be noted over time as well as place or other characteristics (e.g. seasonal pressures).

Health intelligence data sources
Health intelligence in Wales is provided by a number of organisations, each typically producing a number of distinct products, each of which may present information in unique ways. Accessing such a diverse array of specialist resources can be intimidating and interpreting them challenging—particularly for those needing to do so infrequently.  

Key health intelligence data sources: An index of major national data sources that may inform local needs assessments

See also Population health information by topic which incorporates topic-specific signposting to data analyses relating to local needs.

Asset-informed approaches
The Welsh Government definition of prevention is broad: “working in partnership to co-produce the best outcomes possible, utilising the strengths and assets people and places have to contribute”. The Covid pandemic spawned “pop-up” health and well-being services within community assets, considered “vital provision within geographically isolated communities where deprivation and traditional barriers to inclusion require easy to access services, close to where people live” (BCT, 2020). Consider any relevant local assets or potential partner organisations that might facilitate co-production. The following local asset indexes may help identify these:

  • Dewis Cmyru: A searchable (by keyword, category, local authority, outcome, post code) database containing signposting to over 6,000 local and national well-being services.
  • Map of Community Assets in Wales: A clickable map interface from the Building Communities Trust, plotting assets grouped by category that are owned or run by the community.

Participatory approaches
Incorporating the views of stakeholders on questions of service redesign is sometimes termed a “corporate” approach. Participation and engagement may reference any rung on the “participation ladder”, typically ranging from informing (“doing for”) to co-producing (“doing with”). Co-production could position stakeholders as integral partners involved in the design, conduct and interpretation of local needs assessments. Methods for gathering views can include surveys, feedback analyses, focus groups, key informant interviews, etc. Broadly, two distinct groups may contribute views:

  • Community/ service users: Identify opportunities for co-production when engaging with local communities to ensure plans reflect their voice and input, and use language that speaks to and for them.
  • Professionals: Engage with healthcare professionals (including via ACD professional collaboratives and public health) over their views on local priorities (“normative needs”) and potential solutions.

See also ACD Toolkit which covers communication and engagement.

Vulnerable and marginalised groups
Some groups have less opportunity to participate/have their voice heard during the conduct of needs assessments or in conversations around service redesign.  While there is overlap between point-of-care focus on vulnerable and marginalised groups and the much broader social inequalities agenda, it can be helpful to clarify the approach taken as follows:

  • We measure inequalities in populations and large segments (defined groups) within populations
  • We generally take whole population approaches to reducing inequities (inequalities that are unjust and avoidable), which mostly involves addressing the wider determinants of health and action by larger institutions, such as government and national or regional organisations
  • We generally take targeted approaches to meeting the specific needs of individuals, families, and smaller communities who are identified as vulnerable or marginalised; actions could be at the patient or cluster level and tailored to address specific concerns e.g. improved access to screening services for a given disadvantage (rather than more universally).

For vulnerable or marginalised groups, the “gentle” slope of inequality (e.g. depicted as a plot of outcome vs. deprivation quintile) can seem more akin to a cliff edge. Primary care services advocate to reconfigure services so they deliver improvements for all, but should recognise the additional effort needed for those groups with greater unmet needs (this is the concept of proportionate universalism).

For signposting to professional collaborative actions, refer to the following:

Vulnerable and marginalised groups:  Identifying needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups

Approaches to data synthesis
Data gleaned from multiple sources will need collating and/or analyses and formatting for presentation. For example, you might triangulate findings from the international literature, local profiling and community/ professional voices into an evidence-informed narrative. You might supplement a technical tome with more accessible infographics. There are many possible ways to approach data synthesis; a helpful structure to support well-informed commissioning decisions is as follows:

Approaches to data synthesis: Four key questions to help structure a population needs narrative

Understanding variation
Quantitate data and other information may indicate variation in access to or outcomes from care, which may or may not correspond to the unmet needs of known vulnerable groups. Needs assessments should actively seek and discuss such variation:

  • Highlighting variation is not criticism; it is a natural phenomenon and can be healthy. For example, it can be a deliberate result of innovation in primary care settings that seeks to test improvements in processes or deliver better care outcomes.
  • Variation that is observed (or more precisely, measured) in a healthcare context may be referred to as inequality.
  • Inequality that is judged to be both avoidable and socially unjust is termed inequity, which is sometimes alternatively described as unwarranted variation.
  • Data profiles do not provide an explanation for what may account for this at the indicator level. There are many potential reasons for variation—both positive and negative, such as demographic make-up; geography and its effect on access to services; quality improvement activities; programme implementation characteristics; resource constraints; knowledge of best practice; availability of quality improvement expertise; strength of evidence for effective improvement intervention; sustainability-related issues; etc.
  • Those providing local primary care services are well placed to reflect and consider (within a supportive peer review environment) the relevance of potential explanations for any variation documented by local needs assessment.
  • Where variation is apparent, the first step should always be to verify the accuracy of the analysis by consulting the original data source, in case there are unintended errors. Understand that variation shown by any tool is a “best guess” at a single point in time. Variation is more fluid that a snapshot suggests, so measurement at another time point could show a different picture (including trends).

Support resources
General guidance, training and advice may support clusters with needs assessment requirements. This could include the following:

  • Approaches to the assessment of health care needs, utilisation and outcomes, and the evaluation of health and health care (part of the Public Health Textbook): HealthKnowledge is a ‘one stop shop’ that will provide you with all the public health learning materials, whatever your current competency.
  • Population assessment toolkit (hosted by SCW): The Social Services Improvement Agency has developed this Population Assessment Toolkit, alongside Welsh Local Government Association, Public Health Wales and partners, to support the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act. It is designed to support local authorities and local health boards with undertaking a population assessment and publishing the results.
  • Local public health advice and support (see CPSP section 1).