WILKES-BARRE — Northeastern Pennsylvania should be concerned about its health.
Luzerne and Lackawanna counties possess a “hard-living” population that is predominantly overweight, smokes and drinks too much, has easy access to illegal drugs, has a rising increase in mental-health issues and is living in poverty, according to data released Tuesday at the Community Health Needs Assessment forum sponsored by Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center.
Teri Ooms, executive director at the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development in Wilkes-Barre, gave a presentation to about 6o people representing various agencies and health care facilities that showed the area’s needs and offered recommendations to improve health care, increase services and retain patients who seek care outside the area.
The assessment showed our region contains:
• More smokers and excessive drinkers, and its residents are less physically active than the Commonwealth overall;
• Cancer and heart disease continue to be a main causes of death for the region’s adult population; and
• A diet lacking fruits and vegetables, and high blood pressure are the two highest factors contributing to premature death.
Ooms said the data represent primary and secondary research. The primary research consisted of a survey, several focus groups and personal interviews; the secondary research included random sampling, a household survey sent to 12,000 residents of both counties, with a return rate of 12.1 percent.
Ooms said the Community Health Needs Assessment was designed to assess health status, accessibility, and patient perception in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties. She said the goal was to identify community-based recommendations to address the issues.
Perception vs. reality
“Though residents rate their overall health status as fairly good, there is a high incidence of certain chronic diseases as well as obesity, substance abuse and mental health issues,” Ooms said. “Incidences of several of these health issues continue to increase.”
Ooms said the research also many were unaware of health resources available and the importance of preventive treatment and screenings. She said the region has fewer primary care physicians and physicians per 100,000 people than the rest of the state, as well as a shortage of specialists.
The report revealed most people prefer to seek care outside the region and offered criticism that there are no “world-renowned” physicians or research centers here.
The region also has a large base of low-income residents and the number is growing due to the recent economic downturn.
“Wages have not kept pace with rising costs of living,” Ooms said. “Because of fiscal and human resource constraints, health care and social service resources have not kept pace with growing demand.”
Ooms said the growing regional diversity has not been embraced from the perspective of cultural awareness and language (written and spoken) to meet non-English speaking residents.
“This is a barrier for some residents getting the care they need,” she said.
Ooms expressed much concern about the survey’s findings regarding mental-health issues. She said nearly half of respondents felt down, depressed or hopeless between one and two days during the prior two weeks before responding or being interviewed.
“There is a relationship between mental health, health status and income,” she said. “Income was a factor in several of the questions. The higher one’s income, the more likely they are to report a positive health status. The opposite is true of those with lower incomes.”
Ooms said that among physicians interviewed, almost all have or would refer patients out of the area for care if necessary. They cited issues such as quality, the service not available within the region, high-risk patient or the patient demanded to be referred elsewhere.
The primary care physicians interviewed and those who responded to the survey cited a lack of respect for the patient among physicians and fragmentation of care as problems.
The survey revealed that most rated local hospitals as “outdated” and “behind the times.”
“Patients feel there are too many medical errors locally for such a small region and that the hospitals are inefficient,” Ooms said the survey found.
Ooms said the Institute recommends a number of initiatives for the health-care delivery system and related organizations to address the study’s findings. First, she said there should be regional collaboration, communication and cooperation.
“At a time of strained resources, growing problems, duplication and programming gaps, working together is essential,” Ooms said. “The status quo has not and will not be effective in resolving regional issues.”
She said a strong education and marketing program should be established to create awareness, fill in the knowledge gaps and help to form perception, rather than foster antiquated theories about regional resources and quality.