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Conference Highlights Rapid Growth of Health Impact Assessments in the United States

According to a recent poll in Washington State, 71 percent of voters supported a bill that would require the state to consider impacts on people’s health when planning new transportation projects. This poll speaks to the growing recognition that illnesses like asthma, obesity, and diabetes, as well as injuries are shaped by the conditions in the places where we live and work. To address this, we need to factor health into decisions in fields like transportation, energy, housing, and agriculture.

The level of interest in the inaugural National Health Impact Assessment (HIA) Meeting held April 3 and 4 in Washington, D.C., highlights that this approach has become a centerpiece of community, state, and national efforts to improve Americans’ wellness. An HIA is a type of study that allows decision makers to factor health into projects like planning roads, passing agriculture policy, and siting schools. I have been using HIAs for over eight years, and until recently, I knew most of the people in the field. In organizing the National HIA Meeting, I worried that we might not find 200 people to attend. Instead, we had to close registration six weeks early: more than 430 leaders in public health, urban planning, housing, transportation, agriculture, and environmental regulation participated, and many more were on the waiting list.

The Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, sponsored the two-day meeting, along with The California Endowment, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Network of Public Health Institutes.

Keynote speaker Jonathan Fielding, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health who also chairs the U.S. Community Preventive Services Task Force, gave an overview of the fast-growing approach. “The first HIAs were done roughly 12 years ago in the United States,” he said. “There has been huge progress in this field.”

At the Health Impact Project, we are tracking this growth. Today, nearly 200 HIAs have been completed or are ongoing. In 2007, there were only 27 such studies on the books.

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