As a federally-qualified health center (FQHC), you must demonstrate good-faith efforts to evaluate and meet the needs of your community.

This seems pretty obvious. But like so many other issues related to demonstrating compliance with federal regulations, there’s a complicated question behind the seemingly self-evident statement: How, exactly, does a health center demonstrate that you’re meeting the needs of your community?

As usual, we’re here to help. Here are six steps you should take to demonstrate that you’re taking community needs seriously:

  1. Involve your patients in determining your community’s needs.

Your patients have a unique understanding of community needs, and you should leverage that expertise. Don’t just rely on patient surveys, either. Give interested community members opportunities to participate in your governance process.

Federal requirements mandate that FQHCs have patient representation on your Board of Directors, including people who live within your service area. Since HRSA reviewers will need to know all of the details of how your Board makes decisions, it’s a good idea to fully document the inclusion of patient representatives on the Board. Additionally, these individuals must have documentation demonstrating that they have had a medical visit at your facility within the past 24 months.

  1. Talk to other nonprofits in your area.

Other organizations in your area have valuable insights about community needs. Instead of reinventing the wheel, ask them for assistance. Hospitals are oftentimes really helpful partners. They are required to do Community Health Needs Assessments in order to maintain nonprofit status. So they’ve already done a lot of the heavy lifting. Ask them to share the results of their assessments.

Other community organizations (such as nonprofits serving poor and homeless people, women, disabled people, etc.) may also be able to offer assistance. The goal is to get as complete a picture of your community’s needs as you can.

  1. Delve into data so you can more fully understand health needs.

Perceptions can sometimes be misleading, so you shouldn’t just rely on anecdotal understandings of your community’s healthcare needs. Crunch your own data so that you better understand why people are coming to your health centers for care (and how that compares with national averages). Regional data from local universities and public health researchers can also be incredibly useful.

  1. Compile a written Needs Assessment once every three years, and review your service area annually.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, waiting until your site assessment comes around to conduct a Needs Assessment is a recipe for failure. Your health center should get on a regular schedule. It’s best practice to create a written Needs Assessment once every three years, while you should review your service area at least once a year. So get out those calendars and prepare to draw some (metaphorical) circles.

There are a few different ways to conduct these assessments. You might want to compile them as part of a competitive grant application. Alternatively, you can do these assessments “just because” at any point in the year. For an example of one such “stand alone” activity, you might review data about where your patients reside.

  1. Use patient origin data to review and define your service area.

You have a service area. But that service area may change over time. To make sure that you’re staying on top of this issue, review patient data periodically.

If your patient base has shifted geographically, you might choose to redefine your service area. Make sure that you thoroughly document this process for HRSA.

  1. Be prepared to provide examples of how you used the results of the Needs Assessment to improve the delivery of healthcare services.

Collecting information is great. But HRSA also wants to see that you’re actually using the results of your Needs Assessment to implement real changes at your health center. Before the site visit, prepare at least one example of how your health center used the Needs Assessment findings to change something at the center. If you can support your example with data, do it.

Here at RegLantern, we understand that the process of preparing for a HRSA site visit isn’t exactly fun. But we’re here to make the process a little less panic-inducing. If you’d like more blog posts that demystify the inner workings of site visit (and why wouldn’t you?), follow us on Twitter.