CALAIS, Maine — A study on the status of health care — and barriers to it — in the state’s northern and easternmost counties found that Washington County was trailing its neighbors in terms of major health issues, including diabetes and cancer.
The most recent in a series of regional meetings was held last week to discuss the findings of a 2006 study made by the Center for Health Policy, Planning and Research at the University of New England. The center did the research under contract with Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer.
The findings of the 2007 Community Health Needs Assessment were initially made public last year, and last Tuesday were presented by Jerry Whalen, vice president for business development at Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, as part of 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 included a telephone survey of 2,300 households, as well as 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.
The study found that the Washington, Aroostook and Penquis regions have the highest percentage of people 65 and older and the greatest demand for health services.
Washington County has the highest proportion of its population living in poverty, and educational attainment, while increasing, is least favorable in the Washington, Aroostook and Penquis regions.
In the area of health, Whalen said, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, cholesterol and heart disease incidents have increased in Washington County.
“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.
Cancer rates also are troubling. Washington County had the highest incidence rates for breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancers, the report said.
A separate study, “Reversal of Fortunes: Trends in County Mortality and Cross-County Mortality Disparities in the United States,” published last year in PLoS Medicine, reported the life expectancy of women in the Down East county showed a statistically significant decline between 1983 and 1999. Washington County was the only county in New England to show an increased mortality rate for women over that period, according to that report.
Substance abuse also is high in Washington County, according to the UNE report.
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.
Another bright spot was access to oral health care, which has improved across all study regions, with the most significant improvement in the Washington County and Bangor regions. The study did not speculate on the causes of the improvement.
The study included recommendations to:
• 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 or 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.