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Public health program capacity for sustainability: a new framework

Sarah F Schell1, Douglas A Luke1*, Michael W Schooley4, Michael B Elliott2, Stephanie H Herbers1, Nancy B Mueller3 and Alicia C Bunger5

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Public Health Systems Science, George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis, 700 Rosedale Ave, Campus Box 1009, St. Louis, MO, 63112, USA

2 Saint Louis University School of Public Health, Saint Louis University, 3545 Lafayette Ave, Room 478, St. Louis, MO, 63104, USA

3 Insitute for Public Health, Washington University in St. Louis, 600 Euclid Avenue, Campus Box 8217, St. Louis, MO, 63110, USA

4 Applied Research and Evaluation Branch, Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4770 Buford Highway, Mailstop F-72, Atlanta, GA, 30341, USA

5 The Ohio State University College of Social Work, 1947 College Road, Columbus, OH, 43210, USA

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Implementation Science 2013, 8:15  doi:10.1186/1748-5908-8-15

Published: 1 February 2013



Public health programs can only deliver benefits if they are able to sustain activities over time. There is a broad literature on program sustainability in public health, but it is fragmented and there is a lack of consensus on core constructs. The purpose of this paper is to present a new conceptual framework for program sustainability in public health.


This developmental study uses a comprehensive literature review, input from an expert panel, and the results of concept-mapping to identify the core domains of a conceptual framework for public health program capacity for sustainability. The concept-mapping process included three types of participants (scientists, funders, and practitioners) from several public health areas (e.g., tobacco control, heart disease and stroke, physical activity and nutrition, and injury prevention).


The literature review identified 85 relevant studies focusing on program sustainability in public health. Most of the papers described empirical studies of prevention-oriented programs aimed at the community level. The concept-mapping process identified nine core domains that affect a program’s capacity for sustainability: Political Support, Funding Stability, Partnerships, Organizational Capacity, Program Evaluation, Program Adaptation, Communications, Public Health Impacts, and Strategic Planning. Concept-mapping participants further identified 93 items across these domains that have strong face validity—89% of the individual items composing the framework had specific support in the sustainability literature.


The sustainability framework presented here suggests that a number of selected factors may be related to a program’s ability to sustain its activities and benefits over time. These factors have been discussed in the literature, but this framework synthesizes and combines the factors and suggests how they may be interrelated with one another. The framework presents domains for public health decision makers to consider when developing and implementing prevention and intervention programs. The sustainability framework will be useful for public health decision makers, program managers, program evaluators, and dissemination and implementation researchers.

Program sustainability; Concept mapping; Chronic disease programs; Evaluation; Dissemination and implementation