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What would it take to make three W.Va. counties healthier?

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The West Virginia University School of Nursing Eastern Division is tackling health and wellness problems in the Eastern Panhandle counties of Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan. A three year study is leading to a conversation in the community about how to make the area a healthier place to live.

The Bridges to Healthy Transitions Project conducted an assessment in the three counties to determine the area’s biggest public health-related problems.  Joy Buck, Associate Professor of Nursing, says the project included talking with people in the community, interviewing key individuals and analyzing data from the Centers for Disease Control and West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. The goal is to determine how to address the major health concerns in each county.

“Well you know it’s really interesting, and everybody knows this, but all three counties are really quite different,” Buck said. “Some of the solutions we would be doing here in Berkeley County won’t work in Jefferson or Morgan and vice versa.”   

While Jefferson, Morgan and Berkeley Counties each have unique problems, Buck said the report shows they also share some of the same concerns.

“The major things that we saw, and this is not any surprise to anybody, are the fact that we really do have a really young chronically ill population here,” Buck said. “That’s one of the issues and one of the problems with the health system as a whole is we tend to treat single disease states, that’s not what we have here.”

Buck said a number of people in the three counties have multiple health problems at one time.

“We have people who have who have diabetes but they also have heart disease, they have high blood pressure, they also have lung problems,” Buck said. “So it’s not that people have a single problem, they have complicated problems.”

The project conducted a public forum last week in Martinsburg, W.Va. and will have another one this week, on Wednesday from 6:30-8 p.m., at War Memorial Hospital in Berkeley Springs, W.Va. The forums feature panelists who can discuss the connections between all the health problems a single patient might have.

“We can’t talk about mental illness without talking about chronic illness because some of the medications they use to treat mental illness cause diabetes or obesity,” Buck said. “And same thing living with a chronic disease such as diabetes where you have to take some sort of treatment on a daily basis, there’s a lot of co-morbidity with mental illness or depression, serious depression in many cases.”

Buck said the three counties generally have more people with chronic health problems than the rest of the nation. The area fares well in socio economics when compared to the rest of the state and the nation, but the study shows a growing gap between those who have and those who have not.

“So one of the major trends that we’re seeing is the number of kids who are living in poverty grows at the same time that the median income rose significantly in the area so there’s a lot of kind of invisible pockets that we’re not really seeing,” she said.

Buck said the infant mortality rate increased significantly over the past ten years. The hospitals in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan Counties are spearheading an initiative to learn why that’s happening and what can be done about it. Buck said the number of teenage pregnancies is down, however the survey shows there’s a growing drug problem.

“And the percentage of people who died from drug overdose I think tripled in the area as well as the fact that it’s more prescription drugs that have been gotten legally or illegally,” Buck said.

The Bridges to Healthy Transitions Project plans to use the information collected in the study, community conversations and forums to develop a chronic care system.

Other community groups can also develop programs based on the study results and it can serve as a template for other areas of the state that want to undertake a project like this.

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