Report Reinforces Priorities for CCHD

Health Ranking Measure Health Risks, Healthy Lifestyle Trends

Like any community, Cascade County faces public health issues such as obesity, substance abuse, and barriers to accessing care. However, knowing these challenges, and putting numbers to them, helps health professionals, citizens, and decision makers better tackle them, says Cascade County Health Officer Alicia M.┬áThompson. She goes on to say that a new set of national rankings provides some hard numbers to issues health officials have identified as key challenges. The rankings “help reinforce our priorities and sets direction that helps with our planning.”

The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report examines the health and well-being of people living in nearly every county in the United States. Data in the rankings allows counties to see what is making residents sick or healthy and how they compare to other counties in their state. The rankings are prepared each year by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The rankings show the 26 percent of Cascade County adults are obese and that 24 are physically inactive. These numbers compare closely to rates statewide, Thompson said. But they are still higher than desired. “We know that overweight and obesity are problems nationwide, and this shows our area reflects the same trend,” she said. “But, more importantly, it indicates this is an area to focus on.”

The rankings show 18 percent of county residents smoke and 17 percent indulge in excessive drinking. These also are similar to state averages. The report also indicates 19 percent of families in the county are uninsured, compared to 21 percent statewide, and that the county ranks poorly when it comes to numbers of primary physicians versus potential patients.

“All these factors provide additional evidence to situations we suspected are a problem here,” Thompson said. “Hopefully, the rankings data will help inform and educate us a little more about what we face and what we can do.” The county, via its community health needs assessment and health improvement planning efforts, has identified three key priorities, all of which touch on areas mentioned in the rankings.

These priorities include:

  • Improving access to care.
  • Reducing substance use and abuse.
  • Reducing obesity and overweight.

“The interesting thing about these priorities and community health in general is how all these factors are connected,” Thompson said.

For example, beyond lack of insurance, our area faces a physician shortage that affects people’s access to care. “We have people on Medicaid, so they have insurance. But they can’t get a regular physician because doctors can’t take on new patients,” Thompson said. “Without a regular doctor who gets to know you and follow your health, you’re less apt to get the health screenings you need, or to learn that you need to exercise more and lose weight,” she said. “You’re also less apt to get help quitting smoking or dealing with a drinking problem.”

At the same time, attracting and retaining physicians and other young professionals here might be easier if the community was more vibrant. “We have people who come here and leave after a few years,” Thompson said. “But they may be more likely to stay if we promoted recreational activities more, as some Montana communities have done, and do more to make this a place where people want to stay and raise families.” Along those lines, more opportunities to bike and walk around town would be a plus. “People want to be able to bike safely from home to the park with their kids,” she said. ” That, in turn, helps people stay more physically fit, too. And recreation gives people a healthy alternative to smoking or using alcohol.”

Thompson pointed to the Get Fit Great Falls coalition as an example of how a community can work together to improve community prosperity and wellness. The program has developed a “workplace wellness kit” that provides businesses with information on how to provide healthier foods at events an in the office, encourage fitness breaks instead of coffee breaks, and start their own walking programs. “It makes the workplace more welcoming and supportive and helps keep people healthy,” she said.

Tobacco prevention programs have had great success along the same lines, making events more pleasant such as the smoke-free Alive @ 5 concerts and the Young Lungs at Play program in city parks. “There are great ideas from all sectors of the community, and we should be looking at other ways we can work together to make the community healthier and stronger,” Thompson said.

Cascade County’s second Community Health Needs Assessment will be released in the near future, and the information from the rankings will be extremely beneficial to help provide additional information. These two important pieces of information can be used together to help ensure that the true needs of the community are identified. Thompson encouraged people to review the health rankings on the City-County Health Department website.

This year, 46 out of Montana’s 56 counties were ranked in the County Health Rankings report. Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourney, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the rankings “can be put to use right away by leaders in government, business, health care, and every citizen motivated to work together to create a culture of health in their community.”

The rankings for Cascade County and other Montana counties can be viewed at www.countyhealthrankings.org.