How to Conduct an Environmental Scan: A Guide for Public Health Practitioners

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Welcome to our latest blog post designed for public health practitioners. Today, we’re diving into the world of environmental scanning – a crucial tool in the public health sector. Understanding the nuances of this process is vital for effective public health strategies, especially when distinguishing it from research synthesis.

What is an Environmental Scan?

An environmental scan is a comprehensive method for understanding the external and internal factors that impact public health. It involves the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data to identify trends, opportunities, and threats in the health environment. This process helps public health professionals make informed decisions by providing a holistic view of the current landscape.

Key Components of an Environmental Scan

  1. Data Collection: This involves gathering information from various sources, including demographic data, health trends, policy changes, and socio-economic factors.
  2. Analysis: Data is analyzed to understand the implications for public health, considering factors like the prevalence of diseases, health disparities, and resource allocation.
  3. Interpretation: Finally, the data and analysis are interpreted to provide actionable insights for public health strategies.

Environmental Scan vs. Research Synthesis: Understanding the Difference

It’s essential to distinguish an environmental scan from research synthesis, as both serve different purposes in public health:

  • Environmental Scan: Focuses on the broad picture, capturing current trends and immediate factors affecting public health. It’s more about ‘what is happening now’ and ‘what might happen in the future.’
  • Research Synthesis: In contrast, research synthesis is more retrospective. It involves a systematic review and integration of existing research findings to conclude a specific public health issue.

Steps to Conduct an Effective Environmental Scan

1. Define the Scope

Start by defining what you need to know. In public health, this might include disease prevalence, healthcare access, or the impact of new policies. A clear scope ensures your scan is targeted and relevant.

2. Gather Data

The data-gathering phase is foundational to conducting a comprehensive environmental scan. The effectiveness of this process hinges on the breadth and depth of the data sources you utilize. Here, we’ll delve deeper into the variety of sources and methods you can employ to enrich your environmental scan.

A. Government Reports and Public Health Data

  • National and Local Health Departments: Regular reports from agencies like the CDC, WHO, and local health departments offer invaluable data on disease prevalence, vaccination rates, and other health indicators.
  • Legislative and Policy Documents: Stay updated with health-related policies and regulations. Analyzing legislative changes can provide insights into future public health trends and challenges.
  • Healthcare Utilization and Insurance Data: Information on healthcare access and insurance coverage can highlight disparities and gaps in the health system.

B. Health Surveys and Epidemiological Studies

  • Large-scale Health Surveys: Surveys such as the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) or the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) offer comprehensive data on various health behaviors and conditions.
  • Epidemiological Research: Studies focusing on the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specific populations provide crucial insights into public health trends and risk factors.

C. Academic and Research Institution Outputs

  • Peer-reviewed Journals: Academic journals are a rich source of up-to-date research findings and reviews in the field of public health.
  • Research Reports and White Papers: These documents, often published by universities and think tanks, provide in-depth analysis on specific public health issues.

D. Media and Public Opinion

  • News Media: News outlets can offer real-time information on emerging health issues and public responses to health crises.
  • Opinion Polls and Surveys: Understanding public perception about health issues is crucial for designing effective public health interventions.

E. Social Media Trends and Online Forums

  • Social Media Analytics: Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit can be mined for public sentiment and trends in health-related discussions.
  • Online Health Communities: Forums and discussion boards may reveal grassroots issues and patient experiences not captured in formal data sources.

F. Non-traditional and Emerging Data Sources

  • Mobile Health Data: Data from fitness trackers and health apps provide insights into population-level health behaviors.
  • Environmental Data: Information on environmental factors like air quality, water quality, and climate conditions can be crucial for certain public health analyses.

G. Collaborative Networks and Partnerships

  • Networking with Other Health Professionals: Engaging with a network of health professionals can provide anecdotal data and insights based on their on-the-ground experiences.
  • Partnerships with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): NGOs often have unique data on specific populations or health issues, especially in underserved areas.

Integrating Diverse Data Sources

The key to a successful environmental scan in public health is not just the variety of data sources, but also the ability to integrate these diverse data sets. This integration allows for a more nuanced understanding of the public health landscape. It’s essential to approach this process with an open mind, considering both quantitative and qualitative data, and recognizing the potential biases and limitations of each source.

By gathering data from this wide array of sources, public health practitioners can ensure that their environmental scan is as comprehensive and informative as possible, leading to more informed and effective public health strategies.

3. Analyze Trends

Analyze the data to identify patterns and trends. This might involve statistical analysis or qualitative methods, depending on the data. Look for correlations, changes over time, and unexpected results that could impact public health.

4. Interpret and Apply Findings

Interpret the findings in the context of public health. How do these trends affect health outcomes? What opportunities or threats do they present? This step involves turning data into actionable insights.

5. Report and Communicate

Communicate your findings to stakeholders. Effective communication ensures that the insights from your environmental scan inform decision-making and strategy development in public health.

(this particular section could be a dissertation in and of itself. This particular article is helpful.)

Best Practices for Conducting an Environmental Scan

  • Use Diverse Sources: Relying on a variety of data sources ensures a comprehensive view.
  • Stay Objective: Maintain objectivity to avoid bias in data collection and analysis.
  • Regular Updates: The health environment is dynamic, so regular updates to your scan are essential.
  • Collaborate: Work with other public health professionals to gain different perspectives.


An environmental scan is a dynamic and comprehensive tool crucial for public health practitioners. By understanding current trends and factors impacting health, professionals can develop more effective and responsive public health strategies. Remember, an environmental scan is about capturing the current and future landscape, in contrast to the retrospective focus of research synthesis.

Keep these insights in mind as you incorporate environmental scans into your public health practices. It’s an invaluable approach to staying ahead in a rapidly evolving health landscape.

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