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Editorial: Study finds counties in Tennessee improving health outcomes, Southwest Virginia among worst in health outcomes

Staff Report • Jun 21, 2013 at 9:24 AM

Occasional reports from some national organization that ranks localities in some fashion are to be taken with a grain of salt, since they seldom consider local variables that would alter outcomes.

Nonetheless, they do have some value, and the so-called Annual Assessment of Health Outcomes and Factors does give cause for concern. The annual report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute finds that while residents of Northeast Tennessee counties are on a path to improved health — especially Washington County — Southwest Virginia localities are among the worst in the state in terms of health outcomes.

The 2013 County Health Rankings ranked health outcomes in Washington County, Tenn., as 21st among the 95 counties in Tennessee, up from 31st in the state a year ago. Sullivan County is ranked 43rd in the state in health outcomes; Unicoi, 44th; Hawkins, 56th; Carter, 61st; Greene, 65th; Johnson, 70th; and Hancock, 93rd.

On the other side of the state line, most of Virginia’s unhealthy counties and cities are located in the southwest and southside areas of the state while the healthiest are located mainly in the northern urban areas. The state’s five localities with the poorest health are the City of Petersburg, Tazewell County, Buchanan County, Dickenson County and Henry County.

But Wise County also ranked very low at 124th of 133 localities; likewise with Scott County at 120th, Lee County at 115th, the City of Norton at 94th, and Russell County at 127th. Washington County was 95th and the City of Bristol 78th.

The health outcomes are a measure of how healthy a county is currently, while health factors reflect the steps a county is taking to become healthier, said Randy Wykoff, dean of public health at ETSU.

“Health factors are the things like smoking and diet and exercise that we are doing to be healthier,” Wykoff said. And he attributes that as one of the reasons some Northeast Tennessee localities need work. “I think we still see the majority of the threats to our health are behavioral issues like smoking and obesity and then some of the social issues like getting more people through school.”

As to Virginia, the rankings include data on drinking water safety, and in that regard, while Scott County had zero percent of its population exposed to water exceeding a violation limit during 2012, Lee County had 23 percent of its population so exposed and Wise County 37 percent.

And all three localities ranked near the bottom in a measure of physical environment: Scott County’s ranking of 125th was the worst among local counties while Norton was ranked 105th and Lee County and Wise County were ranked 109th and 110th.

The data ranks the overall health of nearly every locality in every state, using a standard method to measure how healthy people are and how long they live.

Localities’ health is ranked on such factors as length and quality of life and weighted factors including behaviors, access to and quality of clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment.

While we have outstanding medical facilities in this region, clearly work needs to be done in some areas, particularly with drinking water safety in Southwest Virginia. That should be a priority for Rep. Morgan Griffith, as it was for his predecessor, Rep. Rick Boucher.

In Tennessee, the problem is focused on behavioral issues like smoking and obesity. Public systems can help with that, but only to a point. The decision on whether to live healthy is a personal choice.

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