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Hancock County rated healthiest county in Maine; Oxford County the least healthy

Posted March 30, 2011, at 12 a.m.
Last modified March 30, 2011, at 8:51 a.m.

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Mainers living in Hancock County are the healthiest in the state, while Oxford County residents are the least healthy, according to a new county-by-county national report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The second annual County Health Rankings report, released Tuesday, reports on a range of “health outcomes” reflecting the overall health of county residents, including deaths before age 75, self-reported poor mental and physical health among adults, and the percentage of babies born under a healthy weight.

The report also analyzes “health factors” that are predictive of health status, such as rates of smoking, drinking and obesity among adults, air quality, the availability of clinical care, educational attainment and the percentage of children living in poverty. By these measures, residents of Cumberland County have the best health factors, while residents of Somerset County have the worst, according to the report.

The online report allows easy access to county-specific data in every state and provides state and national benchmarks for comparison on key issues. The report does not compare health status among states.  

Dr. Stephen Sears, acting director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday that many public and private groups measure different aspects of health care.  Despite county-to-county discrepancies, he said, Maine consistently ranks high among states in the overall health of its residents.

“The important point is that we rank in the top 10 as a state,” Sears said. “But if you look at specific disease issues” — such as Maine’s high rates of cancer and chronic disease — “we have a lot more work to do.”

According to the report, Penobscot County ranks 11th for health outcomes. Residents of Penobscot County die prematurely at a rate of 7,268 people per 100,000 population, compared to 5,912 in top-ranked Hancock County. The statewide average is 6,575 deaths per 100,000 — higher in both counties than the national benchmark of 5,564 deaths per 100,000.

Penobscot County also has higher rates of poor physical and mental health and low birth-weight babies than Hancock County.

Penobscot County ranks 9th for health factors. Compared to Cumberland County, which has the best score for health factors, residents of Penobscot County are more likely to smoke, be overweight, and die in car crashes.

Penobscot County has only one primary care provider for every 728 residents, whereas Cumberland County has one primary care provider for every 474 residents. The average ratio of providers to patients in Maine is 631:1 and nationally 694:1. More children live in poverty, more teens give birth, and fewer adults attend college in Penobscot County than in Cumberland County.

Sears said reports like the County Health Rankings are useful for helping policy makers  recognize regional deficiencies and establish goals.

“Overall, we do well,” he said. “But these variations help us focus our efforts where they can do the most good.”

High on Sears’ list of priorities are initiatives to improve access to health care — including both expanding health care coverage and building the health care work force in underserved areas — as well as improving the overall economic climate in Maine.

The Maine CDC is in the process of drafting “Healthy Maine 2020,” a public document to establish health targets for the next 10 years. Healthy Maine 2020 is expected to be finalized later this year and will help direct the work of Maine’s public health, medical care, environmental and education sectors. In concert with elements of national health reform and other initiatives, Sears said, he expects Maine’s generally high-level performance on most health measures will be maintained and that regional health discrepancies within the state will be lessened.

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