Community assessment is a core function of public health. In such assessments, a commitment to community participation and empowerment is at the heart of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network, reflecting its origins in health for all and the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. This study employs a participation and empowerment plan in order to conduct community assessment.
The method of participatory action research (PAR) was used. The study was carried out in an area of high socio-economic deprivation in Ardabil, a city in the northwest of Iran, which is currently served by a branch of the Social Development Center (SDC). The steering committee of the project was formed by some university faculty members, health officials and delegates form Farhikhteh non-governmental organization and representatives from twelve blocks or districts of the community. Then, the representatives were trained and then conducted focus groups in their block. The focus group findings informed the development of the questionnaire. About six hundred households were surveyed and study questionnaires were completed either during face-to-face interviews by the research team (in case of illiteracy) or via self-completion. The primary question for the residents was: 'what is the most important health problem in your community? Each health problem identified by the community was weighted based on the frequency it was selected on the survey, and steering committee perception of the problem's seriousness, urgency, solvability, and financial load.
The main problems of the area appeared to be the asphalt problem, lack of easy access to medical centers, addiction among relatives and unemployment of youth. High participation rates of community members in the steering committee and survey suggest that the PAR approach was greatly appreciated by the community and that problems identified through this research truly reflect community opinion.
Participatory action research is an effective method for community assessments. However, researchers must rigorously embrace principles of mutual cooperation, respect for public ideas, and a robust belief in community empowerment in order to pave the way for responsible and active citizen participation in the various stages of research.