Mass. still leads Northeast in violent crime, survey shows

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / November 16, 2010

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A broad survey of the state’s health trends has found that Massachusetts continues to lead the Northeast in the rate of violent crime, that less than half of primary-care physicians accept new patients, and that the poverty rate has increased slightly.

Those findings are included in a report the Massachusetts Health Council plans to release this morning at a State House press conference. But the survey, compiled every two years, also has several positive developments, said Susan Servais, executive director of the council.

Fewer people are smoking in Massachusetts, fewer new cases of HIV/AIDS have been reported, and the obesity rate has remained stable, Servais said.

“Our goal is to emphasize how lifestyles impact health,’’ Servais said, “and that not just society and communities, but individuals, can take steps to improve health.’’

The rate of violent crime in Massachusetts increased last year to 457 per 100,000 residents, compared with 449 in 2008, according to FBI data for New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. New York, with the second-highest ranking, had a rate of 385 per 100,000 residents last year.

Servais said the survey also underscored the continued use of emergency rooms for primary care as the state, with 97 percent of its residents insured, has moved toward universal health coverage.

“We were pretty certain that the use of the emergency room would drop, and, in fact, that has not happened,’’ Servais said.

In 2009, the average hospital emergency department in Massachusetts reported 40 percent more patient visits than the average US emergency department, according to data compiled for the study.

“Even if you have insurance, if you cannot get in to see a primary-care physician or it takes months and months to get an appointment, you’re still going to use the emergency room,’’ Servais said.

According to data provided by the Massachusetts Medical Society, 49 percent of primary-care doctors in Massachusetts did not accept new patients this year, compared with 56 percent in 2009. Although that figure dropped, the average wait for an appointment for a new patient increased to 53 days, from 44.

“This is a great place to train, a wonderful place to learn how to be a doctor, but it is a very difficult place to practice medicine,’’ said Elaine Kirshenbaum, vice president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, who is scheduled to speak at the press conference.

“Every year, we determine that anywhere between six and 12 specialties are in severe or critical shortage,’’ she said.

Issues making it difficult to retain physicians include the high debt incurred by medical students, Kirshenbaum said, and the relatively low salaries for young primary-care doctors struggling to pay that debt.

In other findings, the report showed that:

■622,000 residents, or 10 percent of the population, live below the federal poverty level, which is about $22,000 in income for a family of four.

■Adult binge drinking dipped slightly, to 17.5 percent in 2009, compared with 17.7 percent in 2008. In addition, 27 percent of high school students reported riding with an intoxicated driver one or more times during the previous 30 days.

■481 new HIV/AIDS cases were recorded in 2009, compared with 737 in 2006.

■The number of adult smokers dropped to 15 percent, and the proportion of high school smokers was cut to 16 percent.

MacQuarrie can be reached at