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State releases list of top 25 health concerns in Alaska

Jerzy Shedlock

Healthy Alaskans 2020, a joint effort between the state Department of Health and Social Services and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, has released its list of 25 health priorities for the state. The lineup includes many of Alaska’s usual suspects, including suicide, domestic violence and alcohol dependence, but the priorities are unranked.

The list of “leading health indicators” will guide health initiatives in Alaska over the next decade. Among the goals: reducing rates of cancer, suicide and sexual assault, as well as curtailing alcohol, tobacco and drug use. The state has struggled with many of those issues for decades.  

Target goals for every indicator have been established, and the next step will be to boost prevention efforts, according to the health group. “Healthy Alaskans 2020 is part of the national Healthy People 2020 project to provide science-based, 10-year national objectives for ambitious -- yet achievable -- goals for improving health” nationwide.

‘Clear paths of impact’

During the coming year, the group will work to align resources and connect professionals statewide. It aims to cut wasted money and develop more efficient ways of improving Alaskans’ health, said Lisa Aquino, a DHSS public health specialist. But the group was realistic with its goals, she said.

“Some of the indicators already get a lot of attention, whether that’s funding or personnel,” Aquino said. “Some also have much clearer paths of impact.”

For example, Alaska has invested heavily in creating programs to slow teens from taking up smoking. Still, health officials, along with Alaskans the group surveyed, agreed that residents could cut back on tobacco use. As a result, tackling tobacco appears much easier than reducing the numbers of Alaskans living in poverty

Whittling down the issues

Healthy Alaskans 2020 and a group of advisors used two public surveys and state data to whittle down the number of health indicators from hundreds to 71. The remaining health priorities were debated, health officials were contacted, and a manageable list of 25 emerged.

Noticeably, there is no drug abuse-related indicator on the list. Aquino said health officials told the group they were largely focusing on binge drinking as a major factor that leads to drug use. 

Healthy Alaskans 2020 is a decade-long initiative, so while cocaine use has been studied for years, it’s actually no longer as grave a problem in Alaska. Prescription pill abuse is now much more common.

“Those discussions were tough,” Aquino said. “Some indicators were cut, but we think this list addresses communities’ health concerns.”

Achievable goals?

Health officials believe these goals, and others, are achievable by 2020:

• Reduce number of overweight or obese Alaskans -- 38.3 and 29.2 percent, respectively -- by about 2 percentage points each;
• Increase the number of physically active residents -- adolescents from about 20 percent to 23 percent and adults from 57.5 to 61 percent;
• Reduce the number of Alaskans experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault. That includes a hoped-for reduction from 13.3 percent of adolescents who were slapped, hit or physically hurt by their boyfriend or girlfriend during the past year, to 11 percent.  

Indicator number one: reducing Alaskan deaths caused by cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data, Alaska ranks 19th in the nation for cancer. The state’s most prevalent cancer is prostate cancer, followed by female breast cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer. Lung and colon cancer rates in Alaska are slightly above the nation’s rate.

But Alaska’s death rates for all of those cancers are above the national death rates, with the exception of colon cancer; the death rates for Alaska and the U.S. are identical for colon cancer at 15.7 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the CDC.

The overall cancer mortality rate in Alaska is 176 per 100,000 people. The nation’s rate is 173.1, according to the CDC.

The group set its 2020 target at 162 deaths per 100,000 people.

View the full list of indicators at the Healthy Alaskans 2020 website.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms