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Shocking health statistics in Clearlake and Lake County drive healthcare providers to seek solutions



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Shocking health statistics in Clearlake and Lake County drive healthcare providers to seek solutions

(Clearlake, CA) – August 29, 2011 Visitors value Lake County, California for its clean air, scenic lakeside views, and unique terrain. But beneath the surface a hard-fought battle is underway; a high-stakes battle for the health of local residents, and there is reason to be hopeful. 

Health care in rural communities can be a challenge.  Geographic isolation creates concerns about access for both patients and providers.  Economic woes exacerbate the problem by making it even harder to find work, pay bills, buy food, and to afford regular and preventative healthcare.  Poverty is widely viewed as a negative health indicator.

“Lake County is one of the most disadvantaged regions in the nation,” says Terry Newmyer, President/CEO, Northern California Network of Adventist Health. “These communities are isolated both geographically and economically, with levels of unemployment, poverty, chronic illness and drug and alcohol use far beyond state averages. The health effects have been devastating, and that’s why St. Helena Hospital and the community of local physicians are working hard to address these needs from many perspectives.”

The economic numbers are sobering:

  • More than 26% of residents of Clearlake live below the poverty level, double the state average and almost 50% higher than even the rest of Lake County.
  • Median household income in Clearlake is just 42% of the state average and 33% below the rest of Lake County.
  • Unemployment in Lake County of more than 17% puts it among the hardest-hit in the state, 84% higher than neighboring Napa County.
  • In the Clearlake community, nearly 30% of households have no access to a vehicle; making access to employment, healthcare, and even regular meals challenging. 
  • Sixty-seven percent of the county’s schoolchildren receive free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of economic distress as well as evidence that nutritious foods may not be available at home.

While this portrait of economic challenge sits in stark contrast to the stunning landscape of rolling hills and placid waters, it correlates dramatically with the health and wellbeing of the local population.  On almost every health indicator Lake County in general, or Clearlake in specific, ranks near the bottom of the list.   

  • Both suicide and drug-induced death rates in Lake County are nearly three times the state average.
  • Reports indicate that 22.3% of youths age 12-17 have engaged in binge drinking; a rate, which is more than five times that of the state.
  • Tobacco use is four percentage points higher in Lake County than in California as a whole. 
  • In Clearlake the rate of diabetes related hospitalizations is seven times the state average.

Even more astounding are the numbers related to heart health:

  • Lake County’s unadjusted rate of diagnosed heart disease is 12.4% the highest in the state.
  • Also the highest in the state is the rate of hypertension at 37.3%.
  • In Clearlake the rate of hospitalizations due to heart attack is five times the state average.

“We’ve analyzed the data from the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD). It shows that within the Clearlake Hospital Service Area (HSA) as defined by the a 2011 Dartmouth Atlas Report, the rate of hospitalizations due to heart attack are five times the state average, and the rate of hospitalization due to diabetes is seven time the state average,” says Tricia Williams, Vice President of St. Helena Hospital, Napa Valley.  That same Dartmouth Atlas Report highlights the Clearlake HSA among the highest in the nation, about four times the national average, for the rate of PCI, a cardiac catheterization lab procedure that implants stents to restore blood flow when significant blockages are found.  The rate of cardiac stent placements in Lake County reflects the overall level of cardiac disease, with ratios of stent placement to diagnostic catheterization in line with state norms for cardiac practice. 

Addressing the high rates of illness and corresponding medical intervention, Cardiologist Whie Oh, MD, confirms from experience, “Unfortunately, we are dealing with a high-risk society; smoking, high blood pressure, and non-compliance are the worst I have seen.” 

Faced with the daily battle against disease, St. Helena Hospital and physicians have been working to make prevention a priority, improve access to care, and provide necessary interventions that save lives and improve health in the community.  “We treat individuals not statistics,” asserts Dr. Oh in explaining that physicians are striving to improve health in Clearlake one person at a time.

“People find themselves increasingly turning to the emergency room for routine care as their only option,” says Newmyer. “We’re addressing that in a number of ways, including our $12 million expansion and upgrade of the Clearlake emergency department. We’re strengthening the partnership between St Helena Hospital’s Napa Valley and Clearlake campuses to provide seamless care. We’ve also established programs aimed at reducing the level of overall disease.”

In recent years, St. Helena Hospital has introduced Live Well, an innovative whole-person care program based at the Clearlake Family Health Center.  The program aims to improve health for patients with multiple chronic diseases before they require more costly interventions. 

“We work with the referring physician and the patient to create an individual plan that brings together a broad range of tools – medical treatment, physical therapy, diet and exercise, and lifestyle changes – to promote health. Our patients begin with a comprehensive health assessment to determine what factors may lie behind their illness, and each is assigned a case manager as needed to help them resolve non-medical issues such as securing home medical equipment and support,” according to Marian Pena, LCSW, Behavioral Health Manager for Live Well. “We see incredible success stories every day!!  The greatest reward for us here at Live Well is patients whose lives have been changed for the better!” 

Other programs include enhanced women’s care services, an advanced wound care clinic, and a system of rural health clinics designed to meet the residents’ medical needs locally. The Rural Health Clinics provide primary and specialty care as well as behavioral health counseling. In 2010, the clinics served Lake County residents through more than 84,000 patient visits. St. Helena’s Martin-O’Neil Cancer Center has also brought world-class cancer treatment within reach of Lake County, which has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the state.

The evidence shows that efforts of local healthcare providers, prevention and wellness programs such as Live Well, and advances in treatment are succeeding in improving health in Clearlake.  While the 2010 rate of hospitalizations due to heart attack was five times the state average, in 2007 that rate was nine times the state average.

“People are still very sick,” reports Williams. “But we are helping them get healthier.  The number of elective PCI procedures in the Clearlake HSA has fallen 75% since 2005,” she reports. 

Not surprised by that steadily declining trend, Dr. Oh confirms, “restenosis [the reoccurrence of narrowing of a blood vessel sometimes seen after the placement of a stent] has dropped with the use of drug eluding stents.  I am very confident in the medicine we are practicing.”

Newmyer sums it up this way: “Quality, compassionate care, close to home, shouldn’t be a luxury. The citizens of Lake County deserve the best care we can deliver.”