Data show that where you live matters to your health

Medicare users in the Santa Cruz area boast the lowest rate of avoidable emergency room visits in the state. They also happen to have the lowest rate in the nation.

This statistical tidbit comes from the health-focused Commonwealth Fund’s “Scorecard on Local Health System Performance,” released earlier this year, which offers a treasure trove of data on numerous health measures, from rates of uninsured residents to infant mortality. The data can be compared across states and regions.

Interesting, right? But so what?

Health data geeks say the “so what” is momentous: such data can identify problems or successes in public health across regions, and the findings can be used to develop solutions and create healthier places to live.

On Wednesday, some of those geeks convened at the Capitol for a briefing hosted by the California Health Policy Forum on using data to improve population health. The Forum organizes presentations on pressing health issues.

“Where we live matters in terms of how healthy we are and how long we’ll live,” said Karen Shore, president of the national, nonprofit Center for Health Improvement.

David Radley, one of the speakers, delved into the findings of the Commonwealth Fund’s recently released scorecard, which shows wide variation across California in health costs, quality of care and health outcomes.

Here are a few examples:

  • In San Francisco, 18 percent of adults were uninsured in 2009-2010, compared with 31 percent in Los Angeles.
  • Between 2003 and 2011, average health care premiums for family coverage rose 80 percent in San Francisco and 35 percent in Sacramento.
  • Santa Rosa posted the best overall health system performance in the state and Bakersfield had the worst.

Back to Santa Cruz and its low rate of avoidable ER use. Lower use of emergency rooms reduces health care spending and complications related to hospital visits and stays, such as hospital acquired infections.

“Can other communities use Santa Cruz as an example to learn from?” Radley asked. “If we have better data systems, we can start to answer simple questions.”

Oh, and for the record, Contra Costa County Medicare recipients have the worst rate of potentially avoidable emergency room use in the state, and residents of Kingsport, Tenn., are at the bottom nationwide.

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