PROGRESS 2018: Unique health concerns for our region

By Joy Frank-Collins

Special to the Times

Health care and Appalachia have been in the news a lot lately, mainly related to the opioid epidemic sweeping through the region. But while prescription drug abuse has put the area on the map, people who live and work here have many health concerns that local health care providers are working to address.

A recent report issued by the Appalachia Regional Commission, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, outlined a comprehensive overview of the nearly 25 million people residing in the 13-state Appalachian region. The results indicate that Appalachia has higher mortality rates in seven of the leading causes of death than the nation, the region has a lower concentration of health care professionals than the rest of the nation and obesity, smoking and lack of physical activity is more prevalent here than across the nation overall.

It’s an uphill battle for health care practitioners, but one they are taking on with eyes toward the future.

The first step, according to Memorial Health System CEO Scott Cantley, is to keep health care local. That doesn’t only provide local residents access to care and treatment, but it also creates a path for the area to grow and prosper.

“There are two things necessary for communities to thrive: One is good schools, who’s going to want to move to a town if the schools are in bad shape? The other is good health care,” he said. “To me, the Memorial Health System is the last line of defense for communities trying to build and maintain a robust health infrastructure. Growing a neuroscience program, growing a robust oncology program, investing is a good strategy and has paid off for our health system, but I think it’s necessary if we want this community to continue to be what it is and thrive into the future, we’re going to have to have some basic infrastructure of schools and health care.”

Locally-based specialized care does little to help a community if it doesn’t address the issues most prevalent in that area. Of the seven leading causes of death in the U.S. outlined in the ARC report – heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, injury, stroke, diabetes and suicide – the Memorial Health System is actively working to combat at least five of them through special programs.

“Our services are a reflection of what we believe the need is,” Cantley said.

Most recent is the budding neuroscience program slated to take over the footprint of the current Strecker Cancer Center on the main campus at Marietta Memorial Hospital. Through the addition of two neurosurgeons to the staff in the past year, as well as a neurologist, the goal of the program is to be the regional neuroscience program, addressing not only typical spinal issues, but also spine-related brain tumors as well treating diseases of the brain like Parkinson’s and ALS, Cantley said.

The services currently offered at Strecker Cancer Center will continue – with additional treatment options, including a $5 million state-of-the-art Cyberknife, in a new 80,000-square-foot building on the Belpre campus. The building, under construction by PMC Company, will be complete in roughly 18 months, Cantley estimated.

Diabetes is an ongoing concern for residents in the Mid-Ohio Valley. MHS created an Endocrine Center of Excellence on their Belpre campus. It includes endocrinologists, a restaurant to encourage and teach healthy eating habits as well as an exercise facility to teach healthy exercise habits. They also started the charity, Hunger Solutions, with Marietta College and Peoples Bank, to teach children better eating habits.

“Before we start solving things with surgery down the road, let’s try to intervene in the next generation and see if we can improve it,” he said.

“That’s real health care, now you’re really caring for the health, instead of intervening in a sickness.”

Officials at Athena Health Center, LLC, in Parkersburg, also see diabetes as a growing disease in the area.

Along with working to educate patients on managing the disease, Nurse Practitioner and Owner Jody Law, as well as her staff, work to help them get funds to pay for medication, which a large number of patients on Medicare can’t afford. They are also working to find partners that can provide testing supplies to patients on limited incomes, too, said Office Manager Liz Cox.

“Diabetes is a big thing here locally and we’re doing what we can to educate patients and provide them with other forms of support when they can’t afford the meds and supplies they need,” she added.

Athena was founded in 2005 to serve women throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley, particularly by providing them with hormone replacement therapy not offered by doctors throughout the region.

It’s another area where Appalachia is lagging– alternative health options.

Today, the practice continues to offer bio-identical hormone replacement treatment to women and test their hormones through saliva, which is more accurate than blood tests done by traditional doctors, Cox said.

However, they’ve grown to offer more than women’s services like pre-menstrual, peri-menstrual and menopausal evaluation and treatment and breast and cervical screening. In addition to diabetes education and management, Law also functions as a primary care physician for a growing number of patients.

What sets their services apart is their approach, Cox said.

“Athena is a little different, we’re not trying to get in as many patients as possible. Jody likes to take her time talking with patients, they’re not just a number to us,” she added.

Their expanding patient roster appreciates the bedside manner, she said.

Whether the health care is provided by a multi-campus, independent health care system like Memorial, or out of a single building at the hands of a small staff of dedicated women like Athena, understanding the health needs of the people in Appalachia and providing care may be the only way to move the region, and entire country, forward.

“The U.S. can’t be healthy as a whole if we are leaving a whole region behind.

Both taking on the challenges and building on the assets that the counties in Appalachia have will be essential to building a culture of health,” said Hilary Heishman, senior program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in the ARC report.

Key Discoveries from 2017’s

“Health Disparities in Appalachia” report

¯ Appalachia has higher mortality rates than the nation in seven of America’s leading causes of death.

¯ Mortality due to poisoning–which includes drug overdoses–is markedly higher in Appalachia than in the nation as a whole, especially in the region’s rural and economically distressed areas.

¯ The Appalachian Region has fewer health care professionals when compared with the nation as a whole, including primary care physicians, mental health providers, specialty physicians and dentists.

¯ Obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity–risk factors for a number of health issues–are all more prevalent in Appalachia than in the nation overall. Nearly 25 percent of adults in Appalachia’s economically distressed counties are smokers, as compared with just over 16.3 percent of adults in the nation as a whole.

Source: Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.