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Survey checks health of residents Head of panel calls data 'very good'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The average smoker in Carroll County is a 48-year-old man with an annual income of $47,000. Only 14 percent of county residents eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables in their daily diet. Almost 29 percent of Carroll residents never exercise.

These broad conclusions about the general health of the county are among the results of a survey sent to 1,004 randomly selected households in July to identify Carroll's most critical health needs. Responses to the questionnaire -- which was commissioned as part of a communitywide project called "Partnership for a Healthier Carroll County -- were presented yesterday to the project's 40-member steering committee.

Over the next year, the committee will use the survey results to identify gaps in health care services in the county and propose solutions to address those unmet needs.

"I think the data are very good," said Arthur Riley, steering committee chairman and co-owner of Washington Heights Pharmacy in Westminster.

"We need to prioritize what we think the needs of the community are and make assessments as to what topics are to be addressed," Riley said.

The survey is part of a larger effort organized and funded by Atlantic Health Alliance, a network of nine hospitals in the Baltimore metropolitan area that includes Carroll County General Hospital. The hospital and the county health department are organizing the local project.

The six-page survey touched on a broad range of subjects, including eating and exercise habits, drug and alcohol use, sexual behavior and mental health. Of the 1,004 questionnaires sent out, 585, or 58 percent, were returned, said Michelle Holleran, president of Holleran Consulting, a Pennsylvania company that has developed similar health questionnaires for other communities on the East Coast. The households included in the survey are meant to represent the entire county.

"You got the highest response rate of any community we've ever worked with," Holleran told the steering committee.

The top two causes of death in Carroll County, as in the United States, are heart disease and cancer. About 7 percent of county residents have been diagnosed with heart disease and nearly 800 people were admitted to Carroll County General Hospital for heart-related ailments in 1995.

Carroll's heart disease death rate per 100,000 residents was 246, compared with 239 for Maryland and 281 nationwide.

Six percent of county residents have been diagnosed with cancer and the cancer mortality rate per 100,000 residents was 208 in Carroll, higher than the state rate of 200 and the national rate of 206.

The survey included several questions about the behaviors and conditions associated with the onset of heart disease and cancer.

According to the questionnaire results:

17 percent of the respondents smoke, compared with 22 percent nationally.

17 percent of the respondents have high cholesterol.

18 percent of the respondents have high blood pressure and 67 percent of those individuals are taking no steps to control the disease.

51 percent do not regularly use sunscreen when outdoors.

"About 50 percent of the illnesses could be prevented partially by lifestyle choices," Holleran said.

Answers to survey questions indicated that 22 percent of the respondents could not get health care for a variety of reasons, including lack of insurance coverage, being unable to take off from work, lack of transportation and doctors' refusal to accept their insurance.

"There are people in your county who can't get the health care they need," Holleran said. "That may be a surprise in a county that's as fairly affluent as this one."

Dr. Janet Neslen, county health officer, wasn't surprised. She questioned the survey's finding that only 2.6 percent of respondents were uninsured.

"It's very hard to believe that we have such a low number of uninsured," she said. "But our job is to work with those with no access to health care, so we're seeing a skewed segment of the population."

On the subject of maternal health care, the survey found that 5 percent of women who have been pregnant within the past five years did not seek care from an obstetrician, 11 percent did not have a healthy diet, 3 percent used alcohol while pregnant and 7 percent smoked while pregnant.

Despite these negative findings, the percentage of low-birth-weight babies born in Carroll-- infants weighing less than 2,500 grams -- is 6 percent, compared to 8 percent statewide and 7 percent nationally. Holleran said the national goal for 2000 is 5 percent.

"The low-birth-weight baby population is a really good barometer of the health of the general population," Holleran said.

Based on the survey results, county residents are not receiving enough preventive health screenings and tests, including colon cancer tests, Pap tests, blood pressure screenings, prostate exams, flu shots and cholesterol screenings. The one exception is the mammogram, which can detect the presence of breast cancer. The survey found that in the past two years, 68 percent of women over 50 had a mammogram, a rate that exceeds the national goal set for the year 2000 by 8 percentage points.

Holleran attributed the high rate to a health department program offering free mammograms to women over 50.

Survey respondents indicated that the county needs more preventive health services, more doctors with evening and weekend hours, more alcohol and drug treatment centers and more health care for elderly and low-income residents.

"I think all in all this is a good thing to do," Neslen said of the survey. "It tells us what the public is perceiving as opposed to what we're experiencing in the field."

Pub Date: 10/04/96

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