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A structured health needs assessment tool: acceptability and effectiveness for health visiting


  • Sarah Cowley BA PhD PGDE RGN RCNT RHV HVT,

    1. Professor of Community Practice Development, Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, King's College London, London, UK
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  • Anna M. Houston BSc MA RGN RM RHV

    1. Research and Equality Development Officer, Research and Development Department, The Link Centre, St George's Hospital, Hornchurch, UK
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Sarah Cowley, Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery, King's College London, James Clerk Maxwell Building, 57 Waterloo Road, London SE1 8WA, UK. E-mail:


Background. There is, nominally at least, a universal health visiting service in Great Britain, although the frequency of contacts may be severely restricted. Debates about whether home visiting should be universal or selective, therefore, focus on whether health visitors should use professional judgement or structured assessment tools to target attention within their caseload. Research attention has focused mainly on unstructured needs assessments and professional judgment or the development of assessment tools, so that the views of practitioners using structured instruments and their clients are not known.

Methods. A two-phase qualitative study examined the acceptability and effectiveness of a structured health needs assessment tool (HNAT) implemented in London. Views about the tool were elicited from 30 health visitors through telephone interview, and then 21 assessments were observed and tape-recorded; 19 clients were interviewed after the event. Data were evaluated for adequate coverage of views across the target population and analysed using the framework approach.

Findings. A range of views were expressed, but the HNAT caused anxiety and distress to, particularly, the most vulnerable clients. The structured format of the tool appeared to encourage the health visitors to question instead of listen. It did not help to identify all the needs and intruded into normal practice in an insensitive and unhelpful way.

Limitations. This study investigated only one form of structured HNAT. These are commonly used to prioritize undifferentiated needs of clients who have been offered an unsolicited, health promoting service. Our findings therefore do not apply to validated instruments used for screening or specific diagnostic purposes where a client has requested help with a problem.

Conclusions. Given the problems in use and potential for harm, this form of structured assessment tool appears unsuitable for routine use to determine the intensity of health visiting contacts.