DALTON, Ga. - The huge disparity in health rankings between Whitfield and Murray counties can be linked to the fact that Murray is more rural and has not had as much support from a broad array of agencies, health officials say.
In county-by-county health rankings released March 30, Whitfield ranked 37th out of 159 Georgia counties, while neighboring Murray ranked 107th.
The greatest differences in numbers were in morbidity - which ascertains day-to-day health - and physical environment - which includes access to healthy foods and recreational facilities.
Murray also has less than one primary care health provider per 5,000 residents, while Whitfield has one per 1,000 residents.
The nationwide health outcomes rankings, released for the second year, are compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. They factor in tobacco use, obesity levels, access to health care and healthy food, education, employment, safety and air quality, according to the foundation.
"Murray County is a more rural area and doesn't have the same access to health care," said Jennifer King, spokeswoman for the North Georgia Health District, which includes both counties. "And Whitfield County is somewhat unusual in that different agencies across the board have always given extra support to public health."
King said public health agencies will look to see what can be done to address problems. Local health departments offer many services, some free and some on a sliding cost scale, available to help people improve their health, she said.
INSIDE THE RANKINGS
In a breakdown of the rankings, the counties differed most in physical environment, where Whitfield ranked 17th and Murray 133rd. That category noted that 100 percent of Whitfield County residents have access to health foods, while only 33 percent of Murray County residents have the same access.
In the morbidity category, Murray County had more adults reporting overall fair or poor health and more physically and mentally unhealthy days, giving it a ranking of 139th compared to Whitfield's 42nd.
One of the main focuses for public health agencies is health behaviors such as smoking, obesity, birth rate and sexually transmitted diseases, King said.
"These are behavioral issues that can be changed - choices people make," she said. "We work on preventive measures to protect their health and the health of their children."
Right now, King is working with both school systems to adopt the public health department's 100 percent tobacco-free policy. While both systems have tobacco-free policies, they don't address issues such as off-campus school events, how to deal with visitors on campus who smoke or provide a grassroots campaign against tobacco use, she said.
"We have very high numbers in both counties -particularly chewing tobacco," King said. "(Tobacco usage) is one of the biggest factors when it comes to behavioral health impacts."
The county rankings show 26 percent of adults smoke in Whitfield and 30 percent in Murray, compared to a state ranking of 20 percent. The health ranking does not look at use of chewing tobacco.
Both counties have a high teen birth rate, with Whitfield taking the lead at 111 births per 1,000, while Murray has 104. The state average is 55, the national average 41.
"One of the main problems we keep hearing is that kids just don't have anything to do in our two counties," King said.
A coalition of agencies known as Visions of Hope is trying to provide more constructive after-school activities for children, King said.
The counties ranked about the same in social and economic factors, which include unemployment, high school graduation rates and the number of children living in poverty and single-parent households.
FILLING IN THE GAPS
Ali Donahue, marketing director for the Northwest Georgia Health Care Partnership, said she was pleased to see Whitfield ranking so high in the state, but surprised in the gap between the two counties.
"There is clearly a disconnect, and we need to find out what it is," she said.
A national grant awarded to the partnership in February for Whitfield and Murray will help figure out what the disconnect is, Donahue said. The two counties together were one of 40 communities selected to become a part of the Action Communities for Health, Innovation and Environmental Change, or ACHIEVE, supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Communities program.
The grant will provide extensive resources to conduct a wide variety of surveys on the community's health.
"It will allow us to assess the community, find the gaps and fill in those gaps, hopefully," Donahue said. "Education in how your health works is a huge part ... Every aspect of wellness is going to suffer from a lack of education."