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Conducting an Educational Needs Assessment

Originated by: Laura Wilson

Submitted: 26 Jul 2012

Last updated on: 26 Jul 2012

Related Health Topics: Learning styles, Assessment


Effective educational programming is designed to meet the needs of the learners. As a healthcare provider, you may recognize that your constituents have an educational need, such as understanding more about managing a health condition. The first step in addressing that need is to uncover their current state of knowledge, skill and attitudes or beliefs about the topic. This means uncovering the discrepancy, or gap, in what they currently know and do to manage their condition and what they should know or do. However, it is important to not limit the educational intervention to only “filling the gap.” A thorough assessment can also help identify additional areas of interest to your constituents that extend beyond your initial observation.

Areas to explore

A needs assessment can help identify or refine program elements that can impact its success:

  • Content and learning activities
  • Structure (group or individual setting, 1 or multiple sessions, etc.)
  • Logistics (best time, place, etc.)
  • Media preferences and access (Print, digital, mobile)
  • Possible partners, facilitators and resources


Steps for needs assessment

  1. Determine purpose and objectives
  2. Plan who will staff/manage the assessment activity, including
    • Timeline
    • Budget/available resources
  3. Determine data collections logistics
  4. Choose respondents (individuals or groups that represent target audiences)
  5. Select data collection techniques, which can include
    • Surveys
    • Interviews and focus groups
    • Review of social media related to the topic
    • Literature review
    • Evaluations from other programs
  6. Collect data from respondents
  7. Analyze data
  8. Communicate findings, implications and recommendations for program design

A case example

A recent health education project focused on the need for people with diabetes to have annual comprehensive eye exams. It was discovered that many of these patients had low compliance rates with this annual test. In order to build an educational intervention, we needed to understand why patients were not having this exam.


  • Understand patients’ knowledge of comprehensive eye exam as part of diabetes management, including terminology, rationale, key steps
  • Uncover patients’ motivators and barriers to having exam


  • 2 health educators
  • Small budget for out of pocket expenses
  • Approximately 2 weeks for recruitment, research and report

Data collection included

  • Phone interviews with 3 people with diabetes
  • Phone interviews with 4 healthcare providers (primary care, endocrinologist, ophthalmologist)
  • Review of clinical literature about diabetes, trends in eye care visits, patient barriers and motivators for eye exams
  • Review of postings in online chat rooms, bulletin boards, etc.


We learned that people with diabetes have these issues and concerns:

  • Difficulty understanding difference between vision exam and comprehensive eye exam
  • Uncertainty about payment/insurance coverage for exam
  • Fear of pain or discomfort
  • Fear that exam would show vision loss, which they preferred not to discuss or address
  • Preference for print materials to use in individual counseling sessions


Program implications

  • Develop a counseling tool for healthcare providers and accompanying handout (that included illustrations and common terms) to explain the exam and its benefits
  • Provide information about insurance coverage for exam
  • Provide content about the examination experience to alleviate concerns about pain and set expectations for any discomfort
  • Provide content about early benefit of identifying any vision loss early to prevent further issues
  • Action plan to help patients take steps to make appointment, arrange transportation, communicate with eye doctor and primary provider

While this was a fairly small scale needs assessment, it provided valuable guidance for a targeted educational intervention. This approach can be used on a larger scale initiative as well.


Caffarella, R S. Planning programs for adult learners: A practical guide for educators, trainers and staff developers. 2nd edition. Available at: http://www.mendeley.com/research/planning-programs-for-adult-learners-a-practical-guide-for-educators-/


Methods for Conducting Needs Assessment

Guidelines for Cooperative Extension System Professionals
McCawley, PF.

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