All who are interested in health or health care in Northwest Indiana should read the section on health in the 2012 Quality of Life Indicators report. This, among other studies, points to Northwest Indiana as one the areas of the state where citizens rank lowest in categories commonly used as indicators of health — like numbers of smokers, health outcomes, and diet and exercise.
Unfortunately, the data used in the report are incomplete, because health data is collected on a countywide basis by the sources used and our counties are very heterogeneous in makeup. More detailed community-by-community epidemiological data are needed to make better conclusions.
The good news, by general consensus, is that our existing doctors and hospitals are providing great care at quality institutions. To be sure, there are gaps in the kind of doctors we have and their distribution. We know, for example, that the northern part of Lake County has far fewer doctors than south Lake County.
Also, too much of the care given to Northwest Indiana residents occurs in Chicago or Indianapolis hospitals and clinics at great expense and inconvenience of patients and families. This has an economic as well as health care impact. Estimates have been made of up to $1 billion in patient care dollars leaving our area as residents seek care in the larger academic hospitals nearby.
We also lack a trauma center and a pediatric intensive care unit, both of which could be part of an academic medical center, a facility that a population of our size needs for the best in care.
For this reason, state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, has introduced legislation to fund a feasibility study of Northwest Indiana health that would pin down in community-by-community detail our region’s needs: Are there gaps in care? What new kinds of doctors and health professionals are missing? What kind of new facility would bring those services to our patients? How are people paying for health care and what are the barriers to preventative medicine? What are the costs in lower quality care and limited access to residents for these deficiencies?
We also need an ongoing research project analyzing these needs over time so changes in our quality of care, or lack thereof, can be tracked in detail in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.
The Affordable Care Act promises to bring a new emphasis on increased coverage for health care by Medicaid and private insurance, more emphasis on early disease detection and prevention and more longitudinally comprehensive care to make sure already diagnosed patients are following proper directions at home.
The increased services offered by the Affordable Care Act might also come at a price of longer waits for physicians because of increased burdens on our system, which is already experiencing a shortage of doctors.
So we are faced in Northwest Indiana with a number of unknowns about the future of health care in our region. The more we know about ourselves, the better we will be able to respond as a special region of our state. Right now we do not know enough.