Three years ago, the Stark County Health Department and community partners identified five health priority areas for the county.
This week, the department released findings from its latest Community Health Assessment report, charting progress or lack thereof in those five areas and laying the groundwork for the next three years.
"This is just the start," said Kay Conley, chair of the Community Health Needs Assessment Advisory Committee. "It obviously takes a lot of regular work, but it's just the start of us taking a new approach to addressing even the same health issues that we've been working on."
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Those issues are access to health care; addiction; infant mortality and maternal health; mental health; and obesity and healthy lifestyle choices.
Access to health care remains high on priority list
The full report is not yet available, but a draft released this week showed that the majority of community leaders believe there has been improvement in access to health care compared to three years ago.
Forty-nine percent say there's been major progress in increasing the number of residents who have health insurance or Medicare, and 42% say there's been major or moderate progress in increasing the number of residents who have a primary care provider.
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But 24% of community leaders said that access to care is actually worse now than it was three years ago. Some of the barriers to care include cost, a lack of reliable transportation, not enough providers or locations for care or culturally competent care, among other challenges.
Transportation has been a growing area of focus for health officials in the county. Surveys of women's health experiences and youth health in the region both found transportation cited as a barrier to health care access for those groups.
"What is very, very concerning to me, is when we take a look at our ratings for physical environment, we are one of the worst in the state. Physical environment encompasses air water quality, housing, and transportation," Dr. Anju Mader, chief integration officer for Stark County Mental Health & Addiction Recovery, said Wednesday during the 2022 Stark County Health Improvement Summit, where the draft report was released.
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The health department has launched campaigns, including Dear Stark Women and Save Stark to act as resource hubs for health access. According to the community health assessment, only 14% of leaders felt that people in the community know about their health options.
At the health summit, leaders polled community groups in attendance to begin the process of identifying priority areas for the upcoming years of work. Access to health care, and transportation in particular, remained high on the list of areas where focus is needed.
"My takeaway is just trying to engage a group to continue the work in a new way, better way that benefits the same issues that we've been having," Conley said.
Mental health leads priority list
Three years ago, mental health was rated as the No. 1 priority by community leaders, and it continued to lead discussion at the health summit this week.
In particular, 76% of community leaders reported that there are not enough services in Stark County to address mental health, with challenges including staffing and workforce shortages, accessibility to care, stigma reduction, affordability and the lack of integration of mental health into other forms of health care.
Mental health challenges have been on the rise in recent years, particularly with students. According to the Northeast Ohio Youth Health Survey, 34.5% of students reported that they'd been told by a health professional before the current school year that they had a mental health issue.
The most common among female students are anxiety and depression, while the most common among male students ADD/ADHD and anxiety.
Addiction continues to climb
Addiction was rated the second highest priority among community leaders three years ago, and the issue has continued to grow more challenging.
Sixty-four percent of community leaders said addiction is worse now than three years ago, and 63% said there were not enough services to address substance use disorders.
In 2020, 131 Stark County residents died from an overdose, part of a steadily increasing number of overdose deaths every year.
The county introduced Save Stark, a resource hub for those with substance use disorders, earlier this year, and is continuing to raise awareness about needle exchange programs and give out free naloxone and fentanyl test strips to reduce the number of overdose fatalities.
Majority say infant mortality, maternal health improved
Just 11% of community leaders said that infant mortality and maternal health was worse than three years ago, compared to 59% who say the issue has gotten better. However, 20% said that there was no progress on reducing inequality and disparity in the area.
Fewer than half of the respondents agree that there were adequate an accessible family planning services, and only 69% of pregnant women in Stark County accessed prenatal care in their first trimester in 2021.
Plus, inequality remains in infant mortality: while overall rates are decreasing, the overall infant mortality rate for all races is 5.4, compared to 3.8 for white babies.
More respondents say healthy lifestyle choices worse than three years ago
Only 8% of community leaders said the issue of obesity and healthy life style choices are better than three years ago, compared to 41% who say the issue is worse.
The challenges central to healthy lifestyle improvements include access to healthy food, both in terms of grocery access and the affordability of food, as well as the lack of safe outdoor green space and time to take care of one's health.
A county health ranking found that 28% of Stark County adults are considered physically inactive, the population that has access to exercise has decreased from 81% in 2013 to 68% in 2020.
With data in hand, next steps toward improvements can roll out
Looking ahead, the Stark County Health Department will take the information from the report and assess areas where it can take action to make improvements, as well as distributing the results to community partners who may be able to help address the gaps in services.
Over the next three years, the advisory committee will continue to monitor process and prepare yet another report to see what helped move county health forward.
The reports are largely aimed at health providers and community social service organizations who are equipped to try and meet the needs identified in the reports. But Conley said there are implications for residents who aren't involved in the work as well.
"I'm an audience, I'm impacted, my family is impacted by health," Conley said. "We are all impacted by health, whether we're a provider of a service or not."
Plus, she said, understanding the health landscape of the county could help residents find ways to get involved.
"[This may] just kind of give them the fuel to want to reach out and get something done in their community," Conley said.
Sam Zern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-580-8322. You can also find her on Twitter at @sam_zern.
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Stark Community Health Assessment charts progress on health priorities