04/19/06 — What's killing Eastern North Carolina?

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What's killing Eastern North Carolina?

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on April 19, 2006 1:49 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Death is stalking eastern North Carolinians at a faster pace than the rest of the state, and researchers at East Carolina University are trying to find out why.

Chris Mansfield is a professor at the Brody School of Medicine and director of the university's Center for Health Services Research and Development. He spoke at a business breakfast Tuesday at Mount Olive College.

Mortality rates show eastern North Carolinians have a better chance of dying prematurely than their counterparts in the Piedmont and the mountains, Mansfield said. Premature mortality is considered dying before age 75, which is the national average.

Twenty-five years ago, eastern North Carolinians were dying prematurely at a rate 17 percent higher than the rest of the state. Today, Mansfield pointed out, that percentage has increased to 21 percent.

The leading cause of death is traffic accidents, he said. The highway death toll in the eastern part of the state is 40 percent higher than it is to the west, despite the larger relative population of the Piedmont, with its major cities.

Other chief causes of early death are heart disease and cancer. He said a higher percentage of eastern North Carolinians smoke, compared to the rest of the state and nation. Twenty-six percent of eastern North Carolinians smoke, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta show tobacco use is a leading cause of premature death, Mansfield said, with diet, lack of physical exercise and alcohol use close behind.

Mansfield said the business community needs to help address the reasons behind those statistics. He entitled his talk, "What's really killing us, and what can we do about it?"

Public health officials are conducting research into the major health problems in this part of the state in an effort to determine who is at most risk and why, Mansfield said.

He cited a number of statistics that show the disparities between races and sexes in premature death but said geography seems to play a larger role in death rates than people might expect. Some statistics are well known, he said. White men live longer than non-whites. Women of all races live longer than men.

Mansfield said changes in health care are leading universities toward changes in curriculum. He said universities will soon be more involved in public health and that the doctors of the future will resemble personal trainers.

Mansfield said the creation and continued development of a medical school at ECU has helped improve health care east of Raleigh.

"We've done a pretty good job of training primary care physicians," he said, noting that one-third of the medical school graduates are from under-represented minorities, and that half are women.

Mansfield said the research center at ECU polls hospitals in the region to determine what jobs they need filled most in order to provide the mostly rural region with well-trained doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals.

The school is keeping up with changes in medicine as well as increasing demands for health care. Some options under consideration include increasing the size of medical school classes and residency programs or perhaps adding new programs such as chiropractic, podiatry, psychiatry, social work, imaging technology and genetic counseling.