Report: Worcester Among Least Healthiest Massachusetts Counties
Thursday, April 05, 2012
While the study highlights the individual failings of an unhealthy society, the report may also be an indictment on the health system, something Dennis Irish thinks is in dire need of an overhaul.
“I know at Saint Vincent we are on a mission to get out of the sick business and into the health business,” said Irish, a spokesperson for Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester. Irish beleives there needs to be a greater focus on more preventative medicine. “Hospitals in the past have always waited and treated people when they’re sick.”
The area’s near-the-bottom ranking should serve as a wake-up call and ignite a much-needed discussion about the importance of living healthy, according to Kathryn Hunter, president and CEO of the YMCA of Central Massachusetts in Worcester.
“This is an opportunity for our communities to engage in a discussion on policies and programs,” she said. “We need everyone to take part, from schools to the city to health organizations. We all really care about the health of our community.”
Near the bottom
At No. 10, Worcester County residents rank just above those in Berkshire, Bristol, Suffolk and Hampden counties in overall health – and far behind top-ranked Dukes County, which includes Martha’s Vineyard.
Hampden County was ranked least healthy.
For a complete list of all 14 Massachusetts counties, from healthiest to least healthy, see the County Health Rankings report.
Built off data going back to 2002, the rankings are accompanied by detailed information in two main categories: Health Outcomes and Health Factors, which were further broken down into several subcategories.
Worcester County ranked 10th overall in Massachusetts in Health Outcomes and 11th overall in Health Factors.
By the numbers
Of particular note were the numbers of premature deaths. Worcester County had 5,734, almost 300 more than the state total of 5,441 and well above the national benchmark of 5,466.
Worcester County residents are also collectively much heavier than those around the rest of the state, with 26 percent reporting themselves as overweight or obese, compared to 24 percent for the state. In addition, 20 percent said they smoke, while just 17 percent statewide and 14 percent nationally said they currently smoke.
The numbers came as no surprise to Derek Brindisi, director of Public Health in Worcester.
“We do know smoking-related illnesses are the No. 1 cause of premature deaths,” he said. “There is a distinct correlation between the high smoking rate and premature deaths.”
The city’s smoking rate is even higher than the county’s, Brindisi noted, with 22 percent identified as smokers. Combining a high smoking rate with a large number of overweight or obese people is a recipe for disaster, he said.
“In general terms,” he said, “what we know nationally is weight and obesity is an epidemic.”
Close to 70 percent of the nation is considered either overweight or obese, Brindisi noted. Nationally, illnesses related to weight cost $147 billion annually in healthcare.
“If we could reduce obesity rates by just 5 percent, in theory we would save $25 billion in national healthcare costs,” Brindisi said.
There has in recent years, he said, been a larger focus on chronic illnesses brought on by smoking and being overweight. In the past, he added, the bulk of attention went to diseases such as tuberculosis. Modern medicine, which can cure or improve many of those diseases, has brought about a shift in medical strategy.
Hunter also believes people in general are becoming more attuned to their personal well-being.
“We have seen an increase in participation (at the YMCA),” she said. “People are looking for a place to come socialize and to take part in healthy activities.”
Hunter cited several factors that likely resulted in the numbers reflected in the County Health Rankings, putting stress near the top of the list.
Economical disparity and access to healthcare, she added, also have an effect, and finances play a part when it comes to eating,. Hunter noted people with less income are more likely to eat out and make poor eating choices. It doesn’t help that Worcester County seems to have an inordinate amount of fast-food restaurants.
Of all the restaurants in the county, 47 percent were identified as fast food, compared to just 25 percent nationally. The state, overall, did not fare much better, with 44 percent of all restaurants serving fast food.
In Worcester, Hunter said, efforts are afoot to change that.
“I know there are people and establishments that are looking at that and how there can be healthier options for people with limited income,” she said.
Brindisi pointed out that Worcester has its own health report and said it was updated last week and Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said the city is doing its part to improve the overall health of its residents.
“Our city continues to make strides everyday in addressing obesity, tobacco and drug use,” Petty said. “We are making great strides with our policies and investments to make this one of the best walk-able and livable cities anywhere.”
Worcester public schools, he added, have been nationally recognized for their nutrition program. The work isn’t stopping there, he said
“I continue to work with the city council’s standing subcommittee on Public Health and Human Services and the administration to continue to make Worcester a healthier place to live,” Petty said.
Brindisi said the report is a useful tool in the area’s ongoing efforts to increase public health.
“The rankings raise awareness to large issues of overall obesity, tobacco use and other (unhealthy habits) as major public health issues that are causing the large degree of preventable illnesses,” he said.
The abysmal ranking for Worcester County also does something else, Brindisi said.
“(It) tells me there’s lots of room for improvement,” he said. “No 10 is in the lower tier. It speaks to the fact that we have a lot of work to do.”
What’s most important, he concluded, is whether people even know there is a problem.
“The general population is probably not even aware the County Health Rankings exist,” he said. “But this gives us the opportunity to start a dialogue locally.”
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