Editorial: Report reveals county’s complex health issues, needs

  • Baystate Franklin Medical Center was among several sources that unveiled a report on community health care, seeking to focus on the various causes of problems. Staff File Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 7/16/2019 10:19:44 AM

Nine percent of Franklin County’s youth who identify as heterosexual have contemplated ending life at one time or another, according to a recent report on the region’s health from a coalition of seven nonprofit hospitals and one insurer.

Comparatively, 39 percent of young people who identified in the assessment as LGBTQ reported that in the past they’ve “seriously considered suicide.”

Additionally, the report’s authors found that 59 percent of those who’ve been in foster care experienced depression compared to 26 percent of other children. Likewise, 14 percent of foster children have used prescription drugs compared to 8 percent of the general population.

Elders are at a particularly high risk of experiencing poor health, with many reporting they felt isolated and socially excluded. (Notably, the 65-and-older population is expected to rise exponentially from less than 20 percent now to 35 percent by 2020.)

The region’s black residents, who comprise 1 percent of the population, are way behind their counterparts in matters of both health and income — they’re five times more likely to live below the poverty line, for example.

While unsurprising, sadly, this bird’s-eye view of the region’s health is as striking as it is concerning.

Franklin County is grappling with a complex web of public health issues.

One could infer this is driven by the region’s health care infrastructure. Not only is our county the poorest in the state, but it also has fewer primary care doctors than the state average, the least number of dentists and a shortage of medical specialists like psychiatrists. And while 97 percent of residents have health insurance, many providers don’t accept government-operated providers.

The report was compiled from many different sources of data including the state census, Department of Public Health records, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reports, Baystate Franklin Medical Center records, county health rankings, the state healthy aging report and other local assessments.

Of course, a document can’t solve anything by itself, but in the right hands, it could provide a roadmap to solutions.

Identifying the root cause of public health problems is the first step, according to Kim Gilhuly, research and population health manager for the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts.

“You have to take into consideration where people’s starting point is and what barriers they have experienced in their life,” Gilhuly said.

We hope these findings create an impetus for positive change. We hope that good will come of it. Our hope is well-founded. Historically, public health efforts of people like Gilhuly have proven to be effective.

In the past 15 years, for example, from 2003 to 2018, alcohol use fell from 47 percent to 25 percent; marijuana use dropped from 29 percent to 21 percent; cigarette use fell from 19 percent to 6 percent; and prescription drug use declined from 9 percent to 3 percent.

This report provides a new baseline.

Now, it’s up to all of us to bolster our region’s living conditions and improve the lives of our neighbors — through our actions, our financial support, our advocacy. Perhaps then, by working together, we can decrease those striking statistics by the time the next community health assessment is released.


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