Bibb, Houston counties on opposite ends of national health study

pramati@macon.comMarch 23, 2013 

Despite sharing common borders, Bibb County comes up short when compared to its neighbors in Georgia’s county health rankings.

Bibb County ranked 139 out of 159 Georgia counties, while neighbors such as Houston (No. 23) and Monroe (No. 37) counties fared much better.

The annual survey is conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It ranks each county’s health outcomes -- measures that describe the current health status of a county -- in comparison with other counties in that state.

The survey doesn’t rank states against each other in health outcomes, but a different survey conducted by the United Health Foundation ranked Georgia 36th of 50 states in 2012.

Dr. David Harvey, director of the North Central Health District, said a high or low ranking by itself doesn’t necessarily mean that a county’s health is good or bad. Rather, he said, it’s used as a tool to see how counties compare to each other and for the state’s health districts to decide how best to use their resources.

Harvey’s district covers 13 midstate counties -- Baldwin, Bibb, Crawford, Hancock, Houston, Jasper, Jones, Monroe, Peach, Putnam, Twiggs, Washington and Wilkinson.

Crawford, Putnam, Jones and Jasper all rank within the low to mid-50s of the state’s 159 counties. Of the midstate counties, Wilkinson ranks lowest at No. 142.

Despite having similar populations and quality of medical service, the difference between Bibb and Houston counties comes through various socio-economic factors such as poverty and education, Harvey said.

“There’s a significant difference,” he said. “County-wise, they’re about the same population, but every conversation we have about them comes back to poverty and education.”

Amber Erickson, the district’s epidemiologist, said the data the study uses aren’t always perfect, since counties are asked to self-report a lot of information and use data from 2011 in most cases. Harvey said the infant mortality data are from 2004-10 and that significant improvements in that rate in Bibb County have been made.

Still, Erickson and Harvey said the rankings are useful, particularly when they want to approach county officials about programs they want to offer in a specific county.

“The survey gives us a good, practical start,” Erickson said. “We can look at the progression level and identify areas that need change. The data is good and valid, but it’s not a pinpoint in time.”

“It’s more of a look backwards, where we have been and not where we’re going,” Harvey said.

Harvey noted that oftentimes, a single percentage point change in one piece of data might cause a county to rise or fall in the rankings, and that a county might drop in its ranking one year simply because a different county improved and leapfrogged it. Harvey also said some of the criteria the survey has used has been changed in the four years it has been conducted.

Most of the midstate counties have shown consistency or have improved since the 2011 survey. For example, Houston County ranked No. 17 in 2011, and 22nd last year. Monroe County has shown improvement each year, moving from 71st in 2011 to No. 41 last year, and now stands at 37th.

While some midstate counties rank in the bottom half of the state overall, they are showing progression in the right direction. Hancock, one of the poorest counties in the state, was ranked 113th in 2011, but jumped to 94th the next year and is up to 92nd on the current list. Similarly, Twiggs County has progressed from No. 128 to No. 121 to No. 94 over that same stretch.

Bibb County’s ranking from 2011 was No. 127, improving to 116th last year. Bibb lost ground in this year’s study when it fell back to 139th.

Across the state, there haven’t been a lot of significant changes, said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the state’s department of health.

“For the top and the bottom, usually eight of the 10 counties stay the same,” she said. “There’s more movement in the middle.”

Nydam said the survey is important for raising awareness of health issues across the state.

Across the nation, the Southeast is the worst region statistically in terms of health, according to national data.

“If you look at the states around us, the Southeast is the worst,” Harvey said. “It’s all related to lifestyle, education. We’re trying to teach people to eat healthier food, trying to get high school graduation rates up.”

Of the Southeastern states, only North Carolina (No. 33) and Florida (No. 34) are ranked higher than Georgia. Mississippi and Louisiana are tied for last at 49, while Arkansas is only one better at No. 48. Other Southern states’ rankings include Tennessee (No. 39), Kentucky (No. 44), Alabama (No. 45) and South Carolina (No. 46).

Harvey said there’s not a lot of interaction with the state on many health issues. Instead, the state lets the health districts decide the best policies for their regions.

The rankings allow the district to approach county leaders and present them with data that shows areas in which a county might be struggling compared with its neighbor.

“I think we use (the study) as a guide,” Harvey said. “Obviously, we’re more concerned with the (lower-ranked) counties than the (higher-ranked) ones. When we put together a presentation for each county’s board of health, we ask what the community wants us to do about it.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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