County health rankings not good in region

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- A report released Tuesday morning by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows dismal numbers for Southwest Georgia.

The annual report ranked 156 of 159 Georgia counties by healthy lifestyle influences. Calhoun County ranked last at 156, Dougherty County rated 117th and Lee County came in at 18th.

Data were unavailable from three counties.

The rankings help counties understand what influences how healthy residents are and how long they will live. They look at a variety of measures that affect health, such as the rate of people dying before age 75, high school graduation rates, access to healthier foods, air pollution levels, income, and rates of smoking, obesity and teen births.

The average ranking for the 14-county Southwest Georgia Health District, which includes Baker, Calhoun, Colquitt, Decatur, Dougherty, Early, Grady, Lee, Miller, Mitchell, Seminole, Terrell, Thomas and Worth counties, was 96.9.

"We are not particularly surprised by these numbers," District Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant said. "We've seen these types of figures before; they also represent education and socio-economic factors.

"We know where we live."

The rankings, based on the latest data available for each county, represent the only tool of its kind that measures the overall health of each county in all 50 states on the multiple factors that influence health.

Each county's rank reveals a pattern of strengths and weaknesses. And the rankings reveal that all counties have areas where they can improve, even those that are the healthiest. Some highlights of what counties look like nationally:

- People are nearly twice as likely to be in fair or poor health in the unhealthiest counties;

- Unhealthy counties have significantly lower high school graduation rates;

- Unhealthy counties have more than twice as many children in poverty;

- Unhealthy counties have much fewer grocery stores or farmers markets; and

- Unhealthy counties have much higher rates of unemployment.

"Socio-economics, education and literacy are the keys to good health," Grant said. "You can't have health literacy without literacy. Health information can be complicated.

"All these factors weigh heavily into healthy behavior."

Dr. Patrick Remington, director of the County Health Rankings project and associate dean for Public Health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said the rankings should be used as a roadmap to better health.

"The rankings really show us with solid data that there is a lot more to health than health care," Remington said. "Where we live, learn, work and play affect our health, and we need to use the information from the rankings to shine a spotlight on where we need to improve so we can take action to address our problems."

Like last year's rankings, researchers used five measures to assess the level of overall health or "health outcomes" by county: the rate of people dying before age 75, the percentage of people who reported being in fair or poor health, the number of days in poor mental health and the rate of low-birthweight infants.

Researchers then looked at factors that affect people's health in four categories: health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment.

Grant said the district is encouraging people to eat right, exercise, not pick up smoking and have preventative screenings.

"Our numbers are bad because too many people smoke, are overweight and obese, uninsured, and all those are major factors."

Grant said. "It's really difficult to move the needle on these numbers. But I think we are making a difference; I know we are.

"Yet we still have a ways to go."

The complete rankings, by state and county, along with the ranking criteria used, may be seen at www.countyhealthrankings.org.