A public health information system for conducting community health needs assessment

Students in the health education program at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), like students in similar programs at other universities, are often trained through the use of practical projects as part of the curriculum. Health education projects typically require that students select a geographically defined community, conduct a community health education needs assessment, and then produce a program plan that addresses the health needs of that community. The purpose of this project was to develop a community health database and mapping system that geographically integrated demographic, housing, morbidity, and mortality data, using specially written software to facilitate analysis and mapping of the data. The creation of this public health information system (PHIS) represents a step toward using geographic information system technology to improve the process of developing public health needs assessments. The PHIS is also a valuable resource for training public health educators, making hard-to-find needs assessment data readily available to them as well as giving them the ability to analyze the data spatially. After pilot testing in fall 1997, the PHIS was implemented for use in community health education classes at California State University. The CSUN Department of Health Sciences intends to find additional applications for the PHIS database. Currently, the PHIS is being tested by a national medical center as part of a program to determine its effectiveness as a decision-support tool. The system also has been made available to the Los Angeles County (California) Department of Health Services for testing in the Border Health program as a needs assessment tool.