By BRIAN WALKER
COEUR d'ALENE — Kootenai County ranks in the upper tier among Idaho counties of overall health, but has work to do to stay there in the future, according to a new report.
The county is No. 10 out of the 42 counties ranked in the ninth annual "County Health Rankings" published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
"We can't be a healthy, thriving nation if we continue to leave entire communities and populations behind," said Richard Besser, a doctor and president and CEO of the foundation.
"Every community should use their County Health Rankings data, work together and find solutions so that all babies, kids and adults — regardless of their race or ethnicity — have the same opportunities to be healthy."
Data from 35 categories of health behaviors, social and economic factors, clinical care, quality of life and physical environment was used to determine the rankings.
Examples include, but are not limited to: deaths before 75 years old, adult smoking and obesity, provider-to-patient ratios, children in poverty, high school graduation, unemployment, access to exercise opportunities, air pollution, driving alone to work, violent crime, alcohol-impaired deaths and social associations.
THE GOOD NEWS
Kootenai County ranked high in clinical care (No. 5) and length of life (No. 10); in the middle of the pack with health behaviors (No. 25) and social and economic factors (No. 21); and low in the physical environment (No. 40) that includes driving alone to work and severe housing problems.
The report states that Kootenai County ranks between the state and national averages with access to primary care physicians with a ratio of 1,260 residents to one.
“Although we are still below the national average, Kootenai County ranks well for primary care physicians when compared to the state of Idaho overall," said Kim Anderson, Kootenai Health spokeswoman. "This speaks to our early and ongoing efforts to train, recruit and retain primary care providers in northern Idaho."
In 2014, Kootenai Clinic Family Medicine Coeur d’Alene Residency started with its first class of six residents, she said. From that first class, two of the physicians stayed in Coeur d’Alene. This year, five of the residents are planning to stay in the area to practice.
"The program is on track to graduate six family medicine physicians each year," she said. "With members of each class staying in northern Idaho to provide care for people here, the program is helping improve access to primary care."
Kootenai Health also maintains an active physician recruiting program, she said.
"Research into our population and demographics helps us identify which physician specialties, including primary care, are needed here," Anderson said. "Our physician recruiter works to find providers who will be a good fit for our community and bring them to northern Idaho."
The development of Kootenai Clinic, which employs more than 200 physicians and advanced practice providers, has also been a strong program for both physician recruitment and retention, she said.
"Some physicians prefer to work for an employer instead of running their own practice," she said. "Kootenai Clinic provides that option in northern Idaho."
The county also ranks above state and national numbers for access to exercise opportunities.
"Knowing the positive impact exercise has on our health, everyone should be encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity to improve their health," Anderson said.
However, access to mental health providers continues to be a challenge, as the county ranks below national and state averages with a ratio of 560 to 1.
"Although our community has made great efforts in this area through programs such as the Northern Idaho Crisis Center, this is still an area of need," Anderson said. "Kootenai Health continues to provide the only in-patient care in the five northern counties for children and adults experiencing a behavioral health crisis."
Work is also underway to integrate basic behavioral health services into primary care practices, Anderson said.
"This is an issue of national proportion and certainly won’t be solved overnight," she said.
Other categories Kootenai County ranked below the state and national averages were child living in poverty (19 percent) and adult smoking (16 percent). Both numbers are concerning and weigh heavy in the rankings, said Jerry Spegman, a community coach for County Health Rankings and Roadmaps.
"There has been improvement with smoking around the country, but this is an indication that more needs to be done," he said. "With children in poverty, if a kid starts out behind, it's hard to catch up."
Katherine Hoyer, Panhandle Health District's public information officer, said the report is timely because PHD recently conducted a Community Health Assessment survey that provides stakeholders information to set priorities for the future of health in the community.
"Through the survey and the Robert Wood Johnson report, we have been able to identify health needs in the counties we serve," Hoyer said.
"Now that we have this information and have analyzed the data, we are presenting it to community partners and stakeholders to assess what needs are top priorities. From there, we create action plans to improve those health priorities."
Hoyer said a need agencies will focus on is improving access to medical, dental, mental health services, housing and even food.
"Other themes we see in North Idaho are our aging population, obesity, substance abuse and disease," she said.
On the positive side, Hoyer said, PHD and partners such as CDA 2030, Heritage Health, Kootenai Health and the Coeur d'Alene Tribe are helping to combat the concerns.
"At Panhandle, we offer a Diabetes Prevention Program that is focused on nutrition and physical activity," she said. "Our home health team offers individualized care in the comfort of your home and a senior companion program."
Oral health checks for kids and pregnant women, tobacco cessation and prevention, cancer control and prevention and other health checks are also offered.
Jennifer Jones, who walked in Coeur d'Alene City Park on Tuesday, reflected on the rankings on community and personal levels.
"While I believe our community has made strides about being more health-conscious, I also believe improvements can be made," she said. "I'm always reminding myself that the status quo is never enough when it comes to my health."
The study is being shared with state health departments, public health institutes and other entities.
"Those teams, in turn, are encouraged to share data with their partners around the state," Spegman said.
The study's partners offer online strategies for communities to consider on how to address issues reflected in the data.
"Our children will become more resilient, and grow into stronger, healthier adults with greater economic opportunities if we build communities with quality education, emotional and social support, access to quality health care and safe, affordable and stable housing," the report states.
Data sources for the report included, but were not limited to: National Center for Health Statistics, Bureau of Labor, American Community Survey, FBI, Center for Disease Control and Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.
The rankings are at www.countyhealthrankings.org. Ada County ranks as the healthiest in Idaho, while Benewah is the least healthy followed by Shoshone.
The report focuses on counties but a similar report called "America's Health Rankings," produced by the United Health Foundation, ranks Idaho 25th out of 50 states.