Did you know that our community, Dukes County, ranks as the 128th healthiest county in the U.S.? Did you know that Nantucket in the same survey ranks 41? U.S. News and World Report just published its rankings of 500 counties in the U.S. (usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities). Each was assessed in 10 health-related measures such as infrastructure, population health, equity, food and nutrition, and public safety. In another analysis done by the University of Wisconsin (countyhealthrankings.org), Dukes County ranks No. 4 among the 14 counties of Massachusetts. Nantucket ranks No. 1.
Other than local bragging rights, why should you care? The Dukes County Health Council’s Health Information Committee does care, for very good reason. Analyses like the U.S. News’ “Healthiest Communities” and the University of Wisconsin’s “County Health Rankings” provide snapshots of the health issues we face. For example, each of us who live on the Vineyard know many people who face housing insecurity because of the lack of affordable housing. What you might not know is that 23 percent of our neighbors pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing. For the best county performers in the U.S., only 6 percent of their population is in that situation. The average in Massachusetts is 16 percent. And, yes, Nantucket is again better than us, at 17 percent.
We know affordable housing is a problem from our experience and the stories we hear. We know the personal impact. However, data — the numbers — tell us the size of the problem. In our case, 1,500 households on the Vineyard are unduly burdened by housing costs. This is a lot, but also a number that our community leaders can work with. Health data are not just topics for casual conversations over morning coffee breaks. Used thoughtfully, health data puts the problems we hear about and experience in context. Every problem is potentially a “big problem” for those who experience it. However, to solve big problems as a community, it is very helpful to know how many “big problems” there are.
To be useful, health data does not need to be “better” or “worse” than some other community. In some measures of community health, we are thoroughly average. For example, 55 percent of our seniors (defined as people receiving Medicare insurance) received a flu shot in the most recent year measured. Our community’s percentage of influenza vaccinations is the same as the average for the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Yet we should not be satisfied with this result. Our results, though average, are poor. The Healthy People 2030 goal for influenza vaccinations in the U.S. is 70 percent (health.gov/healthypeople). The reason this higher goal is so important is that influenza, like COVID, can kill, and is preventable if we are vaccinated. Our community has a long way to go. With health data like this, however, at least we know where to focus our efforts.
The Dukes County Health Council’s purpose is to advise the county, its leaders, and its residents on important health-related issues. Using health data is one of the ways we do this. The Health Council is developing its website with the assistance of public health students from Boston University’s School of Public Health, to make it easier for health professionals, community leaders, and the public to know the facts about our health. By this fall, the Health Council will update the website with the most current information, and links to national and regional databases. In the meantime, please check out the websites listed in this article, just for fun. At the very least, you will impress your friends with what you know about our health.
In other news, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is seeking recruits for its Patient Family Advisory Council (PFAC). The council is a requirement among all hospitals, and creates an important line of communication between it and the public. The hospital is eager for you to share your insights to enhance their ability to provide patient-centered care while promoting patient and family advocacy and involvement. Meetings occur throughout the year, with the exception of July and August. The PFAC sets annual goals and provides a report to the state each year. This year, its focus includes “supporting the hospital in improving patient access and customer service, promoting information about securing a primary care provider, and reviewing safety for people of all abilities within and around the hospital campus.” The council is open to all members of the community. If you are interested in participating, or for more information, please contact Amy Houghton at 508-684-4571. Your voice is encouraged, and can make a difference in the hospital’s delivery of health care.
The older adult audience may want to read on. Currently, over 30 percent of the Island’s population is over the age of 65, and according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, that number is steadily growing. It may quickly surpass our community’s ability to provide our aging residents with the assistance they need to remain independent. That’s why Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard (HAMV) has stepped up to the plate. Ever mindful of our growing older demographic, they are conscientiously working toward meeting their needs, and the needs of those who care for them. Cindy Trish, HAMV’s executive director, enthusiastically describes the agency’s recent successes. “Our Home Safety Modification Program has installed grab bars, handrails, and other safety equipment in the homes of over 40 older adults and those with disabilities. These safety essentials will minimize their risk of having a fall, which increases with age and disability. We’ve also been addressing the transportation issues many older adults face. Our pilot program, Go-Go Grandparent, has provided about 700 rides to Island destinations since its inception last year using Uber and Lyft drivers. It’s a concierge service where older adults can speak with a live operator to arrange the ride. We hope these programs continue to grow, and would like to thank the Island towns and our many donors for helping get them off the ground.” Trish suggests that anyone interested in these services contact their town’s Council on Aging. Stay tuned for future updates on how Healthy Aging M.V. is serving our Island community, including its debut Home Sharing Program.
Dukes County Health Council meetings occur on the third Thursday of the month from 7:30 to 9 am. They are open to the public. Agendas are published on the Health Council’s website at dchcmv.com. Victoria Haeselbarth is an outreach worker at the Edgartown Council on Aging and former council member, who continues to serve on the health information subcommittee. Bob Laskowski is a retired physician and member of the Dukes County Health Council.