Health forum participants discuss obesity, substance abuse in Maine

Posted June 29, 2011, at 9:27 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — There were plenty of doctors in the house at the Spectacular Event Center on Wednesday morning, but also many other professionals among the 220 people attending an invitation-only health needs forum.

There was no shortage of hot-button issues to discuss, but obesity and substance abuse quickly moved ahead of the others.

The three-hour forum attracted people from the medical, political, business and law enforcement sectors to discuss issues raised by the latest survey of community health needs in Maine, as well as possible solutions.

“This is one of the largest turnouts we’ve ever had for one of these forums, and that’s encouraging, especially since it was attended by nonmedical officials as well,” said Suzanne Spruce, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems’ community relations director. “This collaboration with nonmedical people and new faces could really help give us fresh sets of eyes and ideas, and maybe new perspectives on other ways to solve problems.”

This is the fourth of 11 planned forums throughout the state to detail findings from a 2010 study of 6,400 households across the state commissioned by OneMaine Health, a collaboration of the EMHS, MaineGeneral Health and MaineHealth medical systems.

“This is the first time our needs assessment study has gone statewide and I think what’s encouraging to me about this effort is there are so many people tuned into this now,” Spruce said.

The first two studies were centered on eastern Maine and took place in 2001 and 2007.

Some of the key findings in the 2010 study include:

• Penobscot County has the highest percentage (8.4 percent) of females statewide with no medical checkups in the past two years (compared with 6.4 percent for Maine overall) and a high percentage of females with no usual source of medical care.

• Penobscot also has the highest percentage of obese residents (35 percent) of any county, with the state’s percentage at 28, along with the highest prevalence of adult asthma (13 percent to 10 percent for Maine).

• Aroostook County has the highest percentage (25 percent compared with Maine’s 21 percent) of overweight high school students in the state.

• Washington County is No. 1 in percentage of current smokers (31 percent to 22 percent for the entire state), residents reporting their health as fair to poor (26 percent to Maine’s 15 percent), and uninsured residents (22 percent to 13 percent).

• Piscataquis County is highest among all counties in rate of binge drinking (19 percent  to 15 percent statewide), but lower when it comes to the rate of chronic heavy drinking among adults (5.6 percent to 6.4 percent).

And there were plenty of other red flag items to address.

“One thing that got my attention is the substance abuse issue,” said Jerry Whalen, vice president of business development for EMHS. “Something like 85 percent of kids who have abused prescription drugs did not buy them on the street. They got them from family members’ medicine cabinets. It’s a big issue.”

Dr. W. Allen Schaffer of The Acadia Hospital in Bangor noted that three to seven days in a detox-rehabilitation facility are cheaper than one night in a hospital.

“The single biggest missing link is lack of a public treatment facility,” said Schaffer, adding that the current system overloads emergency and medical facilities. “Basically, the jail is currently the biggest detox center in Penobscot County.”

The forum began with a keynote address by Whalen, followed by a panel discussion and question-and-answer period, a workshop session in which attendees were broken up into different groups to highlight key issues of concern, and an overall discussion of each group’s concerns and recommendation.

The panelists were Schaffer, Dr. David Koffmann of St. Joseph Healthcare, Dr. Robert Allen, Dr. Iyad Sabbagh of Eastern Maine Medical Center and Husson Internal Medicine, and Healthy Maine Partnerships coalition director Jamie Comstock.

Recommendations included increasing insurance coverage, improving dental care access and locating facilities closer to hospitals and medical offices, continuing grant and pilot projects, providing more incentives at workplaces to stop smoking, and maintaining or increasing follow-up care and monitoring of patients to further decrease incidences of return hospital visits.

All the notes taken during the forum, as well as the topics discussed in the individual breakout groups, will be transcribed and posted online at www.emh.org.

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