Creating Healthier Policy

Last week, Holly Avey and Beth Fuller of Georgia State University took part in the first-ever Health Impact Assessment Meeting in Washington, D.C. Representing the Georgia Health Policy Center (GHPC), housed in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Associate Project Director Avey and Senior Research Associate Fuller were on hand to lead sessions and share their expertise in the burgeoning field of health impact assessment.

Health impact assessment, or HIA, is a relatively new field in the United States, although other parts of the world have been using the tool for more than a decade.  The purpose of HIA is to determine what effects a pending decision within a project, plan or policy would have on health, and to mitigate any potential negative outcomes. HIAs can help policymakers identify unintended health risks, find practical solutions and leverage opportunities to improve the well being of the community in which the project or policy – often something not typically health-related, such as a development project or pending legislation – is proposed.

“Georgia is actually one of the locations in the U.S. that has done more [HIAs] than many other parts of the country,” Avey says. In the metro area, a GHPC-conducted HIA has played important roles in the redevelopment plans for former Army base Fort McPherson. GHPC also served on the advisory board for the HIA of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s comprehensive Plan 2040.

Fuller notes that one of the benefits of HIA is that the results of the research are easily and quickly communicated to policymakers. The assessments can be scaled to suit any time frame or budget, and they are completed with the intent to inform a decision before it is made.

Avey is a founding member of the Society of Practitioners of Health Impact Assessment (SOPHIA), which was established in fall 2011. Shortly after that organization launched, the GHPC, along with the Oregon Public Health Institute, was named one of two HIA training centers in the U.S. by the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, through a cooperative agreement with the National Network of Public Health Institutes. As such, the GHPC facilitates training workshops and provides technical assistance and guidance to public health institutes and agencies around the country.

More recently, the Health Impact Project, with additional funding from the Kresge Foundation, awarded the GHPC and the College of Arts and Sciences a new grant for HIA work. The GHPC is partnering with Deirdre Oakley and Erin Ruel from the department of sociology, who specialize in the connection between housing and health, to conduct an HIA and provide recommendations on the selection of sites for and design of public housing in Galveston, Texas, that is being rebuilt after Hurricane Ike destroyed much of the low-income housing in the region in 2008.

“This interdisciplinary team is uniquely suited to address this complex situation,” Ruel says. “The housing situation in Galveston, while important, is not unique. Conducting this HIA will contribute to the field, as well as provide evidence other cities can use when facing a similar problem.”

Oakley and Ruel had already been doing research on the rebuilding effort in Galveston before this partnership came together, laying the foundation for the HIA proposal. “This HIA is not only very important to moving the rebuilding effort forward, but also in furthering one of GSU’s Strategic plan objectives to develop interdisciplinary, cross-college research partnerships,” Oakley says. The GSU team is also collaborating with Lexi Nolen and John Prochaska from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) Center to Eliminate Health Disparities on the Galveston project.

As evidenced by the fact that the inaugural National HIA Meeting sold out in advance “due to overwhelming interest,” according to the conference website, HIA continues to be a growing field. Avey says that interest in the tool has skyrocketed in the time since she became a practitioner.

“Health impact assessment helps to build awareness of the connections between different sectors, to the point that people start to interact with each other proactively,” Avey says. “It’s not a tool that’s always necessary… If they’re including health professionals in their planning processes, then the goal has been achieved.”

April 9, 2012