SHERIDAN — What is health? A simple question can produce complex answers, but that’s what Wyoming Department of Health officials hope to discover as they sift through survey answers and information gathered from community outreach sessions across the state.
The outreach effort included sessions at more than a half-dozen locations across the state in which WDH staff asked residents a series of questions about health. For example: What are the biggest health problems in your community? What are the barriers to health in your community? What does your community do well in terms of health? What can your community do better? The survey is also available online. The answers to those questions will help the WDH assess the state’s health needs, challenges and priorities moving forward.
Dr. Alexia Harrist, state epidemiologist and state health officer in the Public Health Sciences Section, said the WDH has been careful to emphasize that the survey and questions aren’t just about health care. They’ve spoken with individuals about access to healthy foods, recreation and other issues beyond insurance and providers.
As the outreach sessions across the state wrap up, Harrist and Cari Cuffney, senior policy analyst at the WDH, were hesitant to summarize what they’ve heard from residents, not wanting to bias the analysis of the feedback about to get underway.
But two local members of the health industry — Sheridan Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Addlesperger and Sheridan Health Center executive director Wendy Ongaro, PA-C — discussed what they see as the biggest issues facing Sheridan County when it comes to health.
Both could tick through a list of items the community struggles with, including access to mental health treatment, access to primary care, treatment and prevention of chronic diseases and personal responsibility for one’s own health.
The Sheridan Health Center provides primary care services to low-income residents of Sheridan County between the ages of 18 and 64. Ongaro said that while access to mental health care has improved in recent years, the need still stands out as significant in Sheridan County. Access to primary care is also a challenge. When Ongaro refers patients to other providers, the wait to see that provider can stretch from four to eight weeks in many cases.
Both Addlesperger and Ongaro noted the need to provide additional education and prevention screenings for chronic diseases and personal health in more general terms.
“Health care illiteracy is a barrier,” Addlesperger said. “Not knowing the right things to do for health and not knowing where to go to look, even for things as simple as the importance of washing your hands and immunizations, general safety issues like wearing helmets or seatbelts.”
Addlesperger acknowledged that sorting through the information available through the internet to determine what is real and what isn’t can prove difficult for many.
Personal accountability along with social and cultural norms can also appear as barriers to health.
“There is an attitude where there’s a dependency on the health care system to treat them after the injury or illness versus preventing those issues with lifestyle choices,” Addlesperger said. “We haven’t grasped the individual ownership of your health.”
Ongaro, while acknowledging that many health issues that occur aren’t preventable, also pointed to issues surrounding health in Sheridan County that reflect personal choices. For example, she said, about half of the patients at the Sheridan Health Center smoke and the smoking rate is higher in Sheridan County than the national average. The effects aren’t just seen in those individuals’ health, either. They take more sick days, on average, than nonsmokers, affecting workforce productivity. They also use more health care resources than nonsmokers.
It isn’t all bad though. Ongaro and Addlesperger could also point to things Sheridan County does well when it comes to health.
“The beautiful things is that while people are very independent and don’t like screenings, people are very active,” Ongaro said, adding that the level of physical activity in the area is higher than many other places.
Addlesperger also noted the access to recreational opportunities to encourage personal wellness and fitness, applauding efforts for things like the community pathways.
Both also acknowledged all of the work being done by nonprofits and other organizations to promote health. The Sheridan Health Center, The Hub on Smith, Sheridan County YMCA, Tongue River Valley Community Center and myriad other organizations work to make the community healthier through programs that address chronic diseases, fitness and other issues.
As the WDH officials sort through survey results and data collected through its outreach sessions, they’ll start to prioritize the challenges the state faces and put together a public health assessment.
Harrist said she expects the process and assessment to be completed by early 2018, providing a roadmap for bettering the health of state residents.