CALAIS, Maine — A study on the health status and barriers to care in counties in the northern half of the state found that Washington County was trailing its neighbors in terms of major health issues including diabetes and cancer.
Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems (EMHS) in Brewer contracted with the Center for Health Policy, Planning and Research at the University of New England to conduct the 2006 study. The findings were presented last year.
A series of regional meetings have been held, the most recent one in Calais on Tuesday.
The studies findings were presented by Jerry Whalen, vice president for Business Development at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer, at the St. Croix Valley Health Communities National Nutrition Month Coordinated Dinner held at Washington County Community College.
The study compares health care that is working with health care that is not, and suggests areas of improvement throughout the region.
The study group included 2,300 households in its telephone survey and, additionally, public birth and death records, hospital discharge data, cancer registries, unemployment records and self-reported mental health and substance abuse surveys.
The study divided northern Maine into seven regions served by 23 hospitals: Bangor, Aroostook, Penquis, Washington, Hancock, Knox-Waldo and Central Maine, which includes Waterville, Skowhegan and Pittsfield.
It compared health measures in those areas against data for the state and for peer communities chosen because of the demographic similarity to region.
Results varied according to region, but there were few surprises in Washington County.
The study found that Washington, Aroostook and Penquis have the highest percentage of elders, 65 and older and have the greatest demand for heath services.
Washington County has the highest proportion of its population living in poverty and educational attainment, while increasing, is the least favorable in the Washington, Aroostook and Penquis regions.
In the area of health, Whalen said, that smoking, sedentary lifestyle, cholesterol and heart disease incidents have increased in Washington County.
Washington County shares the stage with Penquis with the highest adult diagnosis rates for diabetes. “Washington [county] has the highest rate in the study for sedentary lifestyle plus a high rate for obesity, also the highest diabetes mortality rate,” the study said.
On the plus side, the Washington County region has made gains in reproductive health. The teen birth rate was down from 2001 when the study was first conducted.
But cancer rates are troubling. Washington County had the highest incidence rates for breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancers, the report said..
Substance abuse was also high in Washington County.
One bright spot was access to oral health care, which has improved across all study regions with the most significant improvement in Washington County and the Bangor regions. The study did not speculate as to why that has happened.
Among the study’s recommendations:
.Increase access to primary care services by expanding walk-in care hours.
.Maximize use of federal primary care programs funds.
.Implement sustainable employer wellness programs in each region.
.Promote consumer education on food content and desirable alternatives to high fat/high caloric meals.
.Establish dental health, mental health and substance services at Critical Access Hospitals.
.Establish a low-cost/free prescription drug program in each EMHS service region.
The 2007 Community Health Needs Assessment cost $200,000 and was funded by the Health Care Charities branch of EMHS.