Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Participation in health impact assessment: objectives, methods and core values

John Wright, Jayne Parry, & Jonathan Mathers


Health impact assessment (HIA) is a multidisciplinary aid to decision-making that assesses the impact of policy on public health and on health inequalities. Its purpose is to assist decision-makers to maximize health gains and to reduce inequalities. The 1999 Gothenburg Consensus Paper (GCP) provides researchers with a rationale for establishing community participation as a core value of HIA. According to the GCP, participation in HIA empowers people within the decision-making process and redresses the democratic deficit between government and society. Participation in HIA generates a sense that health and decision-making is community-owned, and the personal experiences of citizens become integral to the formulation of policy. However, the participatory and empowering dimensions of HIA may prove difficult to operationalize. In this review of the participation strategies adopted in key applications of HIA in the United Kingdom, we found that HIA’s aim of influencing decision-making creates tension between its participatory and knowledge-gathering dimensions. Accordingly, researchers have decreased the participatory dimension of HIA by reducing the importance attached to the community’s experience of empowerment, ownership and democracy, while enlarging its knowledge-gathering dimension by giving pre-eminence to “expert” and “research-generated” evidence. Recent applications of HIA offer a serviceable rationale for participation as a means of information gathering and it is no longer tenable to uphold HIA as a means of empowering communities and advancing the aims of participatory democracy.