Beyond the numbers: Studying health care resources in Eagle County
November 28, 2016
It's easy to look through the numbers and see a black-and-white representation of where Eagle County stands as far as what it offers to meet the health needs of its residents. It's also myopic, as it doesn't tell the full story of what health experts in the area are doing to determine areas in which health providers can improve community access.
I started looking through county, state and nationwide information with the goal of being able to tell a story in black and white about what we do and don't have in Eagle County as far as health care capabilities, but like most stories, the information provided more gray area than I had originally thought.
Local experts are trying to sort through that gray area in order to bring a picture of Vail Valley health needs into focus, while also creating plans to expand community access in multiple directions.
Sorting through data
Cost remains a prohibitive factor for many Americans when seeking medical help, and within Eagle County, local providers are looking to create more affordable options for residents seeking care.
Along with state and national databases that offer glimpses into where the county stands, Vail Valley Medical Center and the Eagle County Department of Public Health have been gathering data on the community's needs for years as part of their ongoing work to expand area services.
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Eagle County has a Community Health Improvement Plan, available for download on the Public Health Department's website, that breaks down current data trends, analyzes areas that Eagle County has improved to meet residents' needs and provides information on future areas in which the county will need to grow in terms of care.
Vail Valley Medical Center has published a Community Health Needs Assessment for 2016, in accordance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's guidelines for tax-exempt hospitals to better tailor care to fit the area's growing population. This is the medical center's second such report, which, like the Eagle County analysis, offers a comprehensive view of areas in which the community is doing well in terms of Eagle County residents' access to care, areas where the facility can expand services and strategies to expand services, if necessary.
National patterns at a local level
Some of the health niches in which Eagle County could improve provide a microcosm for national trends, as well. Mental health and substance abuse, in particular, have received attention on both Eagle County's Public Health Assessment and Plan for 2017 and Vail Valley Medical Center's assessment, and as recently as last week, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a 400-page report detailing a dismal picture of substance abuse in America.
The report cites more than 20 million Americans who are currently battling substance abuse — more than the number of people battling cancer of any kind in the United States — with only a fraction of those suffering from addiction receiving treatment.
That's a startling statistic, and although it isn't necessarily the outlook we would hope for as a country, it's starting a dialogue at a national level that local experts hope has a trickle-down effect. In Eagle County alone, there's an ongoing discussion taking place about a new treatment center at Cordillera, and although there has been resistance to the facility, there are hopes that a dialogue will turn into much needed action.
"The more mental health support we have in the community, the more community we'll have — we'll see that increased services in this area as a positive thing," said Kristen Beau, an Eagle-Vail based psychologist.
Beau also said that since she has been practicing in the area, she's seen more therapists coming to the county as the population has grown, and although there is still work to be done to meet the needs and demands of the county, and lessen the stigma for people looking for help, it's an encouraging sign.
Access to care, as cited in Vail Valley Medical Center's assessment, continues to be a problem both in Eagle County and at the national level. Cost remains a prohibitive factor for many Americans when seeking medical help, and within Eagle County, local providers are looking to create more affordable options for residents seeking care.
"One of the first things we identified as a need across the country is that access to care is a big deal," said Jason Moore, Ph.D., a physician's assistant who spearheaded much of the data gathering and analysis for Vail Valley Medical Center's assessment. "This year, we have increased our access to primary care with walk-in clinics and adjusted costs for the community; Edwards walk-in clinic is an example."
Along with current areas that need to expand or improve for Eagle County residents, both the county's health plan and Vail Valley Medical Center's assessment provide glimpses into what future avenues of growth might look like based on what the county is currently experiencing.
The county's Health Assessment and Plan for 2017 cites an aging population as an area of focus, as the population of Eagle County's seniors is expected to grow 169 percent from 2010 to 2020. As a community that doesn't have many options for hospice or in-home nursing care, and that continues to ride a national trend of less-than-adequate access to care, that's something that needs to be addressed as more of this demographic enters the age that they need more specialized service.
Other trends being witnessed by health care professionals need more research to fully understand potential problems and how to appropriately address them.
"Unintentional injury is one of the leading causes of hospitalization, and part of that is an increase in motor vehicle accidents by 90 percent from the previous year," Moore said. "We have a formal research project in the works to partner with other Eagle County organizations to figure out why this is going up."
Moore hopes that by working with other Eagle County officials to look at why there has been a jump in traffic accidents, experts can understand the root cause of the data he's seen and help put in place solutions.
Overall, the hope is that an increase in what we know about where the county stands in terms of health care will lead to improved access and better care for residents. In many ways, that's already happening — Vail Valley Medical Center's Cardiac Catheterization Lab has been a much-needed addition to the area, and the new Centura Health Emergency and Urgent Care in Avon should improve access for the community, as well.
The goal remains for county officials and hospital providers to move past the numerical black and white of where we are now to continue to evaluate the current and future needs of a growing community.
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