Washington State moved up this year from the 15th to the 12th healthiest state in the country, according to a new report. The state's strengths included a significant decrease in infant mortality and fewer children in poverty. However, a profile of the state's African Americans showed significant health disparities.
The report, "America's Health Rankings," an annual list compiled by the United Health Foundation, is based on an analysis of 14 health determinants and six outcome measures in each state. It was released last week.
On the downside, Washington state ranked 30th in high school graduation rates, 37th in immunization coverage, and 44th in per capital health spending.
According to the report, Washington's strengths included a 30 percent decrease from last year in the percentage of children in poverty, a 45 percent decrease in the infant mortality rate since 1990, and a low rate of preventable hospitalizations.
Although the state's ranking has risen, Washington continues to be plagued with significant health disparities. According to the state's "snapshot," or a detailed profile of how each state performed, in Washington, Blacks experience 33 percent more premature deaths than Whites, and Blacks experience 64 percent more premature deaths than other races. Deaths from cancer in the state are also 17 percent higher among Blacks than Whites.
According to Winona Hollins-Hague, chair of the Health Committee for the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, a number of factors have contributed to the continuing health gap in this state. They include a lack of access to health insurance and information, a lack of culturally competent health professionals, socioeconomic disparities and environmental racism.
Hague also noted a lack of health education as one of the main components in health disparities.
"The most important thing that I've noticed in Washington," she said, "is that sometimes there is a disconnect between prevention and education, and that if these can be linked together, it can help significantly decrease one's chances of having a chronic disease."
According to Hague, the Commission was able to identify the most prevalent health concerns in the state's African American community as a result of surveys given to more than 2,000 people at a gathering in Olympia earlier this year. The concerns centered on diabetes, cancer, HIV/AIDS, heart disease, kidney disease, infant mortality, stroke, and obesity, all of which disproportionately affect minorities and African Americans specifically.
Even in the areas where the state has improved, African Americans continue to suffer. For example, while Washington's infant mortality rate decreased by 45 percent since 1990, as of 2003, the Washington State Board of Health reported that African Americans were almost twice as likely to experience infant death and neonatal death than their White counterparts.
In a press release about the state's leap in the rankings, Greg Vigdor, president and CEO of the Washington Health Foundation, stated that the foundation's goal for Washington is to "one day become the healthiest state in the nation."
Hague made it clear that although our state has made great strides, there is still much that needs to be done in the area of racial and ethnic health disparities.
"Those who are in leadership positions in our community have a responsibility to make sure that when we're telling people to take personal responsibility, we must also become a conduit to helping these families empower themselves," said Hague. This will only be accomplished "by making sure that the information we are giving them is something they can interpret, understand and have access to."