Guest opinion: More community work needed to protect Montanans' health

2013-06-09T00:05:00Z Guest opinion: More community work needed to protect Montanans' healthBy SHAWN HINZ
The Billings Gazette
June 09, 2013 12:05 am  • 

As we enter vacation season, it’s a good time to talk about road maps. When we leave on a trip, they keep us headed in the right direction.

Those of us who work in public health need road maps, too: Information that tells us how to get where we want to go. Such data is vitally important, because it affects the health and safety of entire communities.

Montana’s public health professionals in each county are working hard to identify factors that affect community well-being and are putting deep thought into prioritizing programs that prevent disease, increase public safety and reduce health care spending.

A great tool in this effort is the 2013 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

This document examines the health of nearly every county in the United States, including most of Montana. It looks at numerous factors that influence health, such as tobacco use, physical activity levels, community safety and access to health care.

These rankings remind us that there are many controllable factors outside medical care that influence health. As a whole, they provide communities with a better view of the health challenges they face and can help set a direction for change.

Statewide, the rankings indicate Montana has several strengths, including high rates of high school graduation, relatively low levels of air pollution and low prevalence of obesity and diabetes. However, while the rankings indicate that Montana’s obesity and diabetes rates are among the lowest in the nation, rates of both are on the increase here. There are more than 190,000 obese adults and more than 60,000 adults with diabetes in the state.

Challenges faced by many of our counties include high rates of work-related deaths, a high prevalence of binge drinking and a relatively low immunization rate.

The findings also show small increases in the rate of infant mortalities, infectious diseases and children living in poverty.

Other factors examined in the rankings are health behaviors such as rates of adult smokers, sexually transmitted diseases, motor vehicle crashes, breast cancer and diabetes screenings. Physical environmental factors such as access to recreational facilities, and access to healthful foods versus fast food restaurants are also included.

When immunization rates are low, when there is increased chronic disease due to obesity and when there are increased vehicle crashes due to binge drinking, we are all affected negatively. As disease and injuries increase, so do premature deaths and so does the cost of health care.

All across Montana, communities are making these connections and working to improve public health. We’ve seen the health, education, business and recreation sectors work together to promote workplace wellness programs and increase opportunities for walking and biking. We’ve seen health professionals and educators working together to prevent tobacco use and substance abuse. We’ve even seen the health community work with local food producers and business people to create farmers’ markets and other initiatives that promote healthful eating.

To help foster more of this type of cooperation, the Montana Public Health Association is using the health rankings as a call to action. We are working with our membership of public health professionals across the state to find solutions, reach out to others in their community and come together to make our state a healthier place. We hope you’ll help!

Shawn Hinz of Riverstone Health in Billings and Wendy Richards of Custer County are members of the Montana Public Health Assocation. This guest opinion was written in collaboration with several other MPHA members.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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