County forum addresses high rates of obesity, asthma, heart disease

Posted Sept. 13, 2011, at 7:35 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A comprehensive statewide study of the health of Mainers prompted caregivers to gather in Aroostook County on Tuesday to work on finding solutions to some serious health concerns.

The study indicates that Aroostook has a higher percentage of obese adults and teens and smokers than the statewide average. The County also has the highest prevalence of adult asthma among counties, and the second highest prevalence of heart disease. The amount of adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease also is high.

A collaborative of the three largest health care systems in the state, One Maine Health, recently commissioned the Muskie School of Public Service to do the study. The third assessment of its kind, the initiative identified the most important health issues in each county. Eight forums have been held statewide to discuss the results, and The County forum drew close to 70 people to The Crow’s Nest on Tuesday.

Among the key findings of the 2010 study were that 27 percent of Aroostook County adults smoke, compared with the statewide average of 22 percent. Twenty-five percent of Aroostook adults are overweight or obese, as compared with 21 percent of adults statewide. And Aroostook also has the highest percentage of high school students who are overweight of any county — 17 percent versus a statewide average of 14 percent.

“We have several big health concerns up here, and not any of them are surprising,” Sylvia Getman, CEO of The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, said Tuesday afternoon. “The issues around teen obesity are very, very concerning, as well as the number of adults who are smoking.”

The smoking and obesity health risks have contributed to The County also having the highest prevalence of adult asthma among counties, and the second highest prevalence of heart disease, Getman said. The number of adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease also is high.

Other concerns talked about at the session included The County’s high mortality rates for alcohol- and substance abuse-related conditions and suicide.

“The interesting thing about this is that this study tells us the problems that we are facing, but it doesn’t tell us why,” said Getman. “That is why we are here. We need to ask those questions. We need to think at a different level now, and talk about what we could do as communities, not just as health care providers.”

Kris Doody, CEO of Cary Medical Center in Caribou, said that the hospital is working hard to tackle these health issues and has made a dent with a number of programs geared toward keeping people moving, helping them eat better and giving them frequent, updated health information.

Jerry Whalen, vice president of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, said during the session that the needs assessment will give each hospital in The County a chance to reach out to community groups and work to find solutions to the respective problems. He said that having updated health figures also will allow hospitals to secure more grant funding for prevention and other health-related programs. Finding solutions to these problems, said Whalen, also will help lower the overall cost of health care.

The public health professionals, hospital officials and health care providers who gathered Tuesday afternoon broke up into smaller groups at the end of the afternoon to discuss more ways to tackle the health risks and challenges facing county residents.

Attendees expected to develop a plan of action to be implemented by hospitals, counseling centers, health care providers and community groups.

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