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Physical activity, nutrition, access to health care and injury prevention are the issues that a group of about 30 community leaders has decided deserve attention.

They are the issues that bubbled to the top of a $55,000 study of health issues in Yellowstone County, sponsored by the Alliance, which is made up of representatives from Billings Clinic, RiverStone Health and St. Vincent Healthcare.

The group spent about two hours Tuesday digesting the dense report and brainstorming the next steps. No decisions were made, although a wealth of ideas emerged as to where the Alliance goes from here.

The ideas are being crafted into an outline that the Alliance will discuss during its quarterly meeting April 28. The meeting is closed to the public.

The assessment, the second of its kind in 10 years, exposes areas of strength as well as areas of concern, said Jason Barker, CEO of St. Vincent Healthcare. While Yellowstone County generally compares favorably to the nation and to Montana, there are areas that need attention. The study, compiled using a 400-person telephone survey, will help health care leaders chart a course to improve the health of the community.

“Most concerning is that while overall health status compares similarly with national levels, the downward trend in our community suggests that we will have a sicker community in the future if we can’t find a way to reverse the trend,” Barker said.

Negative, or downward, trends, were found in the prevalence of obesity, high blood pressure, high rates of suicide, liver disease deaths, and births to unwed mothers. Low-income residents have a difficult time accessing care and prescription medication and have a much higher prevalence of chronic depression and are more than twice as likely to smoke. Additionally, one out of six Yellowstone County adults is uninsured.

“The results can serve as a personal wake-up call for those of us, like me, who could benefit from more physical activity, a better diet, and routine medical checkups,” Barker said.

The survey was conducted as the economy was getting significantly worse and mental health services were being cut back by shrinking funding.

“When you start to look at all of the factors that are out there, it’s been a really difficult time for people,” said John Felton, who on July 1 will become CEO of RiverStone Health, the county’s public health agency.

Felton cautioned that no significant conclusions can be drawn from five-year data, but he stressed that it is important to raise awareness of the challenges and decide, as a community, how to press forward. Does the community want to address every negative trend or put its energies toward one issue?

Barker said he would like to see public policymakers embrace the results and look for ways to improve the health status in their respective areas of influence. For example, he said, policymakers who have the ability to influence public health policy could use the data to support the need to improve access to care for lower-income individuals in the community.

Inasmuch as the challenges are a community responsibility, they also demand personal attention and commitment. Barker said he would like to see individuals commit to a healthier lifestyle for themselves and their loved ones.

“Having served in health care for over 20 years, it is my personal observation that so much of the disease that we experience can be prevented through a healthy, well-balanced and active lifestyle,” Barker said.

Whatever direction the Alliance takes, one thing is certain, Felton said.

“Changing the health status of a population is a little bit like turning an aircraft carrier,” Felton said. “It can be done, it just takes a lot of time and a lot of ocean.”

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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