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Coalition targets obesity, drug abuse

By Matt Murphy, Local government writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obesity, drug abuse and lack of physical activity.

Those are the top three health issues on which the Kanawha County Coalition for Community Health Improvement will focus during the next three years.

Other major health concerns include heart disease, tobacco use, educational attainment, unemployment/jobs/poverty, cancer and lung disease.

Coalition members based their conclusions on the results of the coalition’s sixth triennial report on the state of health of county residents, which was presented Tuesday evening at the University of Charleston.

The 166-page report included a survey of a random sample of 302 county households conducted between Jan. 22 and Feb. 20; a survey of 85 “key informants” in the county conducted between July 30 and Dec. 18, 2013; and interviews with focus groups conducted in the fall of 2013. The focus groups included three populations that may be underrepresented by the household survey —African-Americans, senior citizens and single parents.

Apart from the primary data, the report included secondary data from outside sources.

Judy Crabtree, the coalition’s executive director, said the survey was expanded this go-round to include questions about residents’ social environment, physical environment and access to health services.

“We are proud of our assessment process,” she said.

Overall, both household and key informant survey participants listed obesity, drugs, education and tobacco as some of the biggest health issues facing Kanawha County.

Among the data included in the report, the coalition broke down responses and issues based on health factors that fell into the categories of social and economic factors; the physical environment; access to health care; health behaviors; and emergency preparedness.

Concerning social and economic factors, fewer people think of Kanawha County as a good place to live than ever before in the history of the survey.

Just 67 percent of household respondents described Kanawha County as a “good” or “excellent” place to live, which John Ballengee, the executive director of the United Way of Central West Virginia, said was the lowest since the first survey in 1995.

Concerning “physical environment” factors, the Jan. 9 chemical leak and water contamination appears to have greatly increased county residents’ concern over water pollution, though some residents were concerned about chemical incidents prior to the leak.

Eighty-six percent of household survey respondents cited “water pollution” as the single biggest environmental issue affecting health.

In 2011, only 46 percent of residents said water pollution was the biggest issue.

Other top physical environment concerns for respondents were air pollution and shortage of affordable housing.

Respondents also brought up problems related to access to physical activity, access to healthy foods and a lack of public transportation.

Key informants and focus groups also expressed concern about air pollution and pollution from old coal mines as well as risks posed by chemical leaks or spills – but Ballengee pointed out those groups were interviewed before the Jan. 9 chemical leak.

Christina Hamrick, a University of Charleston nursing student who helped with the study, said in the African-American focus group, a number of residents from the Dunbar/Institute area expressed concern about the risk of chemical leaks and the lack of knowledge of what to do in case of a chemical leak – several months before the Jan. 9 leak.

Concerning access to health care, most household respondents — 83 percent — said they believe they received quality healthcare in Kanawha County, though that number dropped four percentage points from 2011.

More county residents reported access to wellness programs through their employer than the 2011 edition of the survey, and the 2014 report also found that physicians also have an effect on how county residents make health decisions.

“We’re seeing that more than half reported changing their behavior based on their doctor’s suggestion,” Crabtree said.

Some of the most common issues in health care were related to a perceived shortage of health care providers, issues related to health insurance and affordability of health care services, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department director.

Seventy-six percent of household respondents said they took prescription drugs, 19 percent said they couldn’t afford to fill prescriptions and 23 percent said they had skipped doses or took smaller amounts to make their prescription last longer.

In the focus groups, access to clinics and health care services was a recurring issue.

Finally, concerning health behaviors, drugs, obesity and tobacco were frequently cited as major issues locally.

“Those are things everybody’s mom tells them not to do,” Ballengee said.

Half of all respondents said they had never used tobacco products, and 29 percent said they currently smoke.

Ballengee said he wouldn’t be surprised if the number of ever-users of tobacco was higher, particularly for males.

“I think every guy would say at least once in their lifetime,” he said.

Seventy percent said they had received a flu shot in the last year, and 96 percent said their children had all recommended vaccinations, up from 93 percent in 2011.

The survey found more county residents are drinking sweetened beverages on a daily basis and eating fast food on a weekly basis than in 2011, though in slightly smaller amounts for each.

Sixty-eight percent of employed respondents said the mostly sit or stand on the job versus mostly walking or performing heavy labor.

Respondents also are spending less time for recreational or leisure activities than in 2011 and are watching more television.

Over half of respondents said they never make or answer mobile phone calls while driving, and while adult bicycle helmet use improved, youth bicycle helmet use plummeted from 86 percent in 2011 to 67 percent in 2014.

Respondents in all parts of the survey suggested stronger regulations for doctors who over-prescribe medications and increases in soda and beer taxes, among other things, as possible ways to increase health-promoting behaviors.

In addition to coalition members, University of Charleston nursing students assisted with the study.

The 2014 report also fell on the 20th anniversary of the coalition, which is comprised of numerous health-related organizations in Kanawha County.

“The coalition has achieved a significant milestone,” said David Shapiro, representing the coalition steering committee.


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