Panel: Alaska needs to do more to prevent accidents

Posted: Monday, July 28, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) A national panel of injury-prevention experts has found that education efforts in Alaska have helped cut the accident rate in recent years, but more needs to be done.

''So much good work has gone on here,'' review team leader Ann Thacher said as she delivered the report to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services officials Friday in Juneau. ''All of us are interested in giving these recommendations to a good, strong program to make it better.''

Thacher led seven fellow members of the State and Territorial Injury Prevention Directors Association on a weeklong review of the department's injury-prevention program. They looked at what the state has done and recommended ways to do more, most of which can be accomplished at little or no cost, they said.

Alaska has nearly twice as many injuries per capita as the national average. Many Alaskans work or play in high-risk situations. The climate and geography can be deadly. Guns are easily accessible in many homes. Alcohol use is higher than the national average, contributing to many accidents.

Unintentional injuries such as drownings and house fires are the biggest killers of some ages, but Alaska also suffers from the highest rates of suicide in the nation.

The cost is staggering. Hospital bills alone from injuries cost Alaskans about $50 million a year, according to state figures. Nearly 25 percent of the costs are for the uninsured or for those covered by the state Medicaid program.

Thacher said Alaska was one of the first states to identify injury prevention as a major public health concern. Boating safety programs such as ''Kids Don't Float,'' which makes free life jackets available to borrow at boat launches and harbors, have reduced drowning deaths. Smoke detector use has cut the fatality rates in house fires.

One of Alaska's highlights, Thacher said, is its database of accidents, the Alaska Trauma Registry, which her team found ''particularly impressive.'' The Department of Health and Social Services collects injury data from every emergency room in the state. Such baseline information is the bedrock of injury prevention, she said. It can be used to develop educational programs, write new laws or redesign cars and trucks.

The team found some areas that need improvement. State funding has been unstable. Programs often rely on grants, and much of the prevention work has been focused only on children. Even the trauma registry has been underfunded, she said, causing a three-year lag in data.

''Its value is well-recognized. However, its value is not well-supported,'' Thacher said.

Among the team's recommendations: Establish a statewide injury-prevention plan; create a statewide advisory group; improve the timeliness of data entry in the trauma registry; integrate injury prevention into other health-care programs; and disseminate program information more widely.

Martha Moore, manager of the state's Injury Surveillance and Prevention Unit, said the review held few surprises. But the state's ongoing budget crunch probably means some recommendations will be sidelined, such as writing a statewide plan for injury prevention.

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