Health department examines local area

HANCOCK – Besides providing services which protect and promote the health and well being of the people it serves, a local health department also has the responsibility of letting health care providers know what the community’s needs are, according to Guy St. Germain.

“You can’t do that without good baseline data,” said St. Germain, health officer/executive officer for the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department in Hancock.

That needed data is supplied now with the 262-page Western Upper Peninsula 2012 Regional Community Health Assessment (, which was made public Monday, St. Germain said. There is also an eight-page summary of the assessment.

“Health departments (have) always had as one of (their) core functions to assess the health of the people in (their) area,” he said.

This is the first time for such a broad survey of local health factors, St. Germain said. It was created using a template from a similar survey issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Data from previous state and federal sources were examined, also, but they weren’t specific enough.

“It didn’t provide good information on our local health status and characteristics,” he said.

Also involved in the regional assessment were Aspirus Grand View, Aspirus Keweenaw, Aspirus Ontonagon, Baraga County Memorial and Portage Health hospitals.

“Hospitals have a requirement to produce a health study of their area, so it was an ideal opportunity for all of us to get together and combine our best thoughts to produce the study,” he said.

Other agencies involved in the assessment were Copper Country Community Mental Health Services, Gogebic County Community Mental Health Authority and the Western Upper Peninsula Substance Abuse Services Coordinating Agency.

St. Germain said the assessment has the three broad themes of impact of an aging population, effect of income and education on health, and the importance of prevention for health.

The survey, which asks questions about lifestyle, health status and access to health care, was sent in June 2012 to 8,000 randomly selected households in the WUPHD coverage area of Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties, and it was very successful, St. Germain said.

“We had a terrific response rate of 2,500,” he said. “That gave us a whole wealth of information through the lifestyle, from birth through old age. This should be extremely useful to all the healthcare providers.”

The assessment is broken down by population characteristics, including age, gender, education and income, St. Germain said. It also compares the local community county by county to Michigan as a whole.

St. Germain said he was struck by how important income and education are for good health.

“There are many things about health status and about access to care that correlate much more significantly with income and education … than correlate with location,” he said.

St. Germain said there were a couple surprises in the results of the assessment, but generally those who worked on it didn’t really know what would be found.

“When we compiled the results, we weren’t sure what we were looking for,” he said. “That’s how any project starts out. There is so much here that it took a lot of study on our part to ferret out what this could mean.”

One of the facts which surprised him, St. Germain said was the fact the population of the western U.P. is older than the population of Michigan as a whole.

“Chronic diseases, which are definitely diseases of aging are going to become more and more significant to the western U.P. and to health care providers,” he said.

Another surprise for him the assessment showed was that the local concern that cancer rates are higher in the western U.P. than the rest of the state is wrong.

“What we found is that we don’t (have a higher cancer rate),” he said.

The leading cause of death in the western U.P. is heart disease and second is cancer, which is the same with the rest of the country, St. Germain said.

The assessment shows, also, that adolescent children in the health department coverage area spend an average of three hours a day either watching television or using computers, which is probably a factor in the increase in childhood obesity in the area.

The assessment has or will be sent to local and state stakeholders, including schools, local governments, state legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder.

“We’re disseminating it widely,” he said.

Although lifestyle questions are part of the assessment, St. Germain said the assessment’s purpose isn’t to find causes of disease or even to suggest courses of action. Those things are left to health care providers or agencies who may use the assessment to help them determine what actions they should take to improve the health of residents.

“Everything starts with information,” he said. “This (assessment) is certainly the most in-depth survey for our area that’s ever been done.”