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Published March 21, 2013, 02:27 PM

Health Research Foundation Gives Grand Forks Region a Mixed Report

Grand Forks and other counties in northeastern North Dakota continue to score higher than those in the rest of the state in a national health survey, while Polk and most neighboring counties continue to lag behind others in Minnesota.

By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

Grand Forks and other counties in northeastern North Dakota continue to score higher than those in the rest of the state in a national health survey, while Polk and most neighboring counties continue to lag behind others in Minnesota.

In the annual pulse-taking by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Grand Forks County slipped from third last year to 11th among 46 North Dakota counties ranked this year. Seven counties did not receive rankings.

Traill, Pembina, Griggs and Cavalier counties all ranked in the top 10 in North Dakota, while Red Lake County at 14th was the highest-ranking county in northwestern Minnesota.

Polk County, which had climbed from 69th in 2011 to 54th in 2012, slipped to 60th among the 87 counties this year, followed by Norman (62nd), Pennington (73rd) and Mahnomen (86th).

The foundation calls itself the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. The 2013 report, its fourth annual assessment aimed at giving national, state and local leaders guidelines for improving health, was released Wednesday.

It found rates of premature deaths at the lowest level in 20 years, but people in the least healthy U.S. counties are more than twice as likely to die early than in the healthiest counties.

How long and how well people live depends on many factors beyond access to medical care, according to the report, including childhood poverty, smoking, obesity, teen births, high school graduation, college attendance, access to healthy foods, levels of physical inactivity and percentages of children living in single parent households.

The study found that one child in five in America lives in poverty, a rate that hasn’t improved since 2000.

“The counties where people don’t live as long and don’t feel as well mentally or physically have the highest rates of smoking, teen births and physical inactivity, as well as more preventable hospital stays,” the report said.

Smoking, drinking

Polk County’s ranking among Minnesota counties suffered from higher than average rates of adult smoking, drinking and teen births, and children in poverty (20 percent, compared to 15 percent for the state as a whole).

Grand Forks County scored comparatively well in the category “health behaviors,” including adult smoking, adult obesity and drinking, but only in comparison with the other North Dakota counties. Rates for adult smoking and the other “poor” behaviors at both the county and state levels are well above national benchmark goals, according to the research results.

Health on both sides of the Red River is affected adversely by the prevalence of fast-food eateries, according to the study. Just more than half of the restaurants in Grand Forks County and 44 percent in Polk County are fast-food restaurants. The national benchmark is 27 percent. Also, 12 percent of people in Grand Forks County and 8 percent in Polk County have “limited access to healthy foods.”

More prevention

Don Shields, director of public health for Grand Forks County, said the annual survey “helps us to identify things we need to focus on.”

He said the Health Department, Altru Health System, housing officials, the United Way and other groups and agencies will use the report to shape health policies and spending decisions.

“Even areas they say we’re doing well in, we may want to look at those with Altru and our other partners,” he said.

Shields said the report documents health trends, both positive and negative. “We’ve seen premature death rates decrease over time, and an increase in rates of physical activity,” he said. “We’ve had a decrease in preventable hospital stays, with people more willing to take preventive steps.”

Fewer adults are smoking, which Shields said could be attributed to more restrictive local and state regulations, and fewer teens are becoming pregnant.

But Grand Forks County also has seen an increase in uninsured adults and children, he said. A local “working group” has applied for grants to help those people avoid having to rely on expensive emergency room care.

Diversity

Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota’s health commissioner, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the Robert Woods Johnson study “helps to make the point that where people live makes a difference.”

He said it helps state health officials “figure out generally which parts of the state need a little more attention.”

Several northwestern Minnesota counties find themselves near the bottom of the rankings, which Ehlinger said relates in part “to poverty levels, the number of people unemployed, tobacco use rates and other factors, more than access to medical care.”

He said “areas of increasing diversity” also tend to rank lower in health standing, as populations with more American Indians and other people of color “have lower incomes, higher unemployment, lower-weight babies — factors that can really impact health.”

On the Web: Interactive maps that allow you to check the health status of your county are at www.countyhealthrankings.org.

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