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Posted March 25, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

County health rankings decrease despite some improvements

By Kim Walter

County health rankings were recently released for the state of Virginia, and while local rankings have all dropped from last year's results, Charles Devine said things are "still heading in the right direction."

Devine, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, said the rankings are a product of collaboration between the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The project has been conducted in Wisconsin since 2003, but went nationwide in 2010.

According to the results, out of the 133 counties and cities in the state, Frederick County ranked 26, down from 16 in 2012; Shenandoah County ranked 28, down from 22; and Warren County ranked 62, down from 52.

Devine said readers should look at the rankings with the understanding that a lot of factors and issues went into them. Just because a county's overall ranking went down doesn't mean it hasn't improved in a number of areas, he added.

"For instance, even though Warren County's ranking went down, and is ranked the lowest out of the three, it has made some positive changes," he said. "Specifically, the teen pregnancy rates have gone down every year."

Much like other areas of the state, Devine worries that the health of surrounding counties has suffered due to the economy. Increased unemployment rates can lead to more citizens going without health insurance, which affects the overall status of health, he said.

"I try not to get too overwhelmed by the overall ranking number," he said. "I want to look at the changes in specific data to see whether or not we're making progress."

Digging deeper into the results can prove that even though a county can rank high over all, it could struggle in a specific category that a lower ranking county did well in.

Frederick County, the highest ranked in the area, struggled in the clinical care category due to the number of primary care physicians and dentists per county resident.

"But the county can look at that and maybe decide to figure out new ways to make itself more attractive to physicians who might want to move in and open up shop," Devine said.

He added that all areas seem to be suffering in the clinical care area due to fewer healthcare providers having to take care of more patients.

Under the health behaviors category, Warren County suffered due to the number of adult smokers and rate of sexually transmitted infections. However, Devine said the actual number of STD cases were similar between counties. He said the error margin and method used to calculate rates can skew the results, which is another reason why community members should look beyond the surface rankings.

"I think it's safe to say that some of these numbers have been stable the past few years, but if other counties or cities are improving at a faster rate, then that's going to bump others down in the rankings," Devine said. "Despite this year's decrease in rankings, the underlying issues are continuing to show improvement."

However, just because some health factors are becoming less of an issue, Devine said the community can't become complacent. Even though the percentage of community adults who smoke has slowly decreased over the last three years, Devine said he's still surprised that so many people still engage in the activity.

"Even with all the research available that suggests that smoking can harm you," he said. "It never ceases to amaze me."

Devine would like to see immunization rates included in future health rankings. He said being immunized leads to avoiding preventable diseases and hospital stays - something that's included in the current rankings.

The health department and health district will continue working to combat a number of major issues - obesity, smoking, infant mortality - in the area. But community members should look at the results and "get outraged," he said.

In response to teen pregnancy rates in Winchester and Frederick County, the health district joined with concerned citizens to form L8rBaby, now a part of Clean, Inc. The program works to prevent teen pregnancy by empowering youth through education, health care and advocacy, Devine said. Like that program, others can form in response to the county health rankings.

"Now the community needs to come together as a whole and start working to fix some of these problems," he said. "I hope folks take the time to look at all the things that factor into the rankings, so that they can pinpoint an issue they find interesting, and be a part of the change."

To view the rankings, go to countyhealthrankings.org and click on Virginia. To learn more about how the health district is already working to combat local health issues, contact the office by calling 540-722-3480.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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