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Local initiative will focus community on weight loss

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2011 - The number of adult Missourians considered obese rose by 512,000 during the past decade to more than 1.4 million in 2011, out of a total of 4.6 million. The number of diabetics jumped by 150,000 during the same period to 429,000 adult Missourians.

These numbers are included in a snapshot of Missouri health conditions in the America's Health Rankings report this month by United Health Foundation. The latest numbers for Missouri come as a new initiative, called Live Well STL, is being put together by a coalition of local employers to help area residents become healthier. The group is expected to announce specific initiatives at the start of next year.

The United Health study identifies the key issues that contributed to Missouri's ranking of 40 out of 50 states on the group's health scale:

  • In the past decade, smoking decreased to 21.1 percent of the adult population from 27.2 percent. "However, there are still 963,000 adults in Missouri who smoke," the report stressed.
  • The rate of diabetes among adult Missourians now stands at 9.4 percent, giving Missouri a ranking of 32nd among states. Non-Hispanic blacks have a rate of 13.2 percent, followed by 8.3 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 7 percent for Hispanics.
  • The obesity rate among adult Missourians is now 31.4 percent. Non-Hispanic blacks have a rate of 38.2 percent, followed by a rate of 29.5 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 29 percent for Hispanics.
  • The rate of deaths from cardiovascular disease decreased by 21 percent in a decade, with a current rate of 301.9 deaths for every 100,000 people.
  • Missouri also ranks 39th in preventable hospitalizations, with a rate of 75 preventable hospitalizations for every 1,000 Medicare enrollees.

Vermont ranked first in health, while Mississippi came in last.
While citing these challenges to the well-being of Missouri's population, the report gave the state credit for what it regarded as two positive trends that can affect health outcomes. One is the state's high school graduation rate. Missouri ranks 11th, with more than 82 percent of incoming 9th graders completing high school within four years, the study said.

The other trend involves prenatal care. The study ranks Missouri 10th in the use of early prenatal care, with 85.8 percent of pregnant women visiting health care providers during their first trimester. (These numbers are offset by the racial disparity in graduation and prenatal care rates in some parts of the state.)

United Health already has prevention programs that seek to address some health needs of Missourians. These include diabetes prevention and smoking cessation.

The Live Well STL initiative grew out of a $50,000 grant that the United Health Foundation awarded to the St. Louis Area Business Health Coalition. The grant was one of six given nationwide to affiliates of the National Business Coalition on Health.

The goal is to help spur both dialogue and action to tackle preventable health conditions like those mentioned in the United Health report, according to Andrew Webber, CEO of the National Business Health Coalition. He says business coalition members can galvanize people and organizations to get things done. The new health initiatives that will emerge from sessions organized by local business coalitions are significant "given the well-documented financial challenges confronting so many of our states," Webber says.

For about eight months, the local Business Health Coalition has been working with business leaders, mental health practitioners and organizations, elected officials and advocacy groups to pull together resources to address at least one pressing health problem.

What's different is the level of input the group is getting from consumers and health professionals in setting priorities and choosing the issue they think needs to be tackled. Obesity was cited as a priority by 43 percent of those responding to a questionnaire at the start of Live Well STL's planning process.

The questionnaire results were followed by a health summit attended by more than 100 business, health and community leaders. More than 80 percent of those attending responded that obesity was a pressing health issue.

Following the summit, the group conducted in-depth interviews with some of the health care leaders. The group is now working on an action plan that is scheduled to be announced early in 2012.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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