By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Northeast Mississippi is home to some of the healthiest counties in the state, according to a national health report released Tuesday.
Lafayette County made the top three in both health outcomes and health factors rankings for Mississippi compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Most Northeast Mississippi counties ranked within the top third of the state’s 82 counties.
DeSoto County was the healthiest in the state, while counties in the Delta typically had the lowest performance. Most counties in Mississippi met few, if any, national benchmarks.
Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi chief executive Don Hutson sees a tremendous appetite for healthy lifestyles in Oxford and Lafayette County.
“When we had the inaugural event for Healthy You, Healthy LOU (a community program focused on healthy lifestyles) in January 2011, we had 650 members of the community show up,” Hutson said.
The clinical factors that the hospital can directly influence – like adding medical staff and technology – are important. The factors influencing a community’s health are much broader.
“We have a tremendous focus on those areas,” Hutson said.
The health outcomes ranking are based on mortality – premature deaths – and morbidity data, which includes quality-of-life measures and the number of low birthweight babies born.
The rankings look at a broad range of factors that contribute to health and well-being including unhealthy behaviors like smoking and lack of exercise, access to primary care, education, air quality, poverty and fast food restaurants. The data was collected from national and state sources between 2002 and 2010.
Lee County was listed at No. 7 in health factors and No. 22 in health outcomes.
Lee County particularly ranked high for clinical care. The county outperformed the state average and approached national benchmarks for ratio of primary care providers, diabetic screening and preventable hospitalizations.
Lee County had a higher rate of premature death – an estimated 11,511 years lost from people who didn’t reach 75 per 100,000 people. That was compared to a state average of 10,811.
“To me it says we’re doing all the right things with health factors,” said Liz Dawson, director of North Mississippi Medical Center Community Health and co-chairwoman of the Healthy Tupelo Task Force. “Some of that work has not caught up yet,” in the health outcomes.
Particularly, there is a need to drill down with numbers of premature deaths to see if there is a common thread, especially in deaths among teens and young adults.
The County Health Rankings also come with a road map function, which makes it a valuable tool to start the conversation for public health and community officials.
“You can look and see what it takes to make a healthy community,” said Liz Sharlot, director of Mississippi State Department of Health.
Location isn’t just for real estate, but no community can rest on its laurels, the researchers said Tuesday during a national conference call.
“Where we live does matter to our health,” said Dr. Patrick Remington, associate dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Even the healthiest counties have room for improvement.”
Hernando Mayor Chip Johnson was featured on the national teleconference as an example of how community leaders can lay the foundation for a healthier community. DeSoto County was the top of the health outcomes list for Mississippi.
Health is a personal responsibility, but cities and counties can create an atmosphere that values healthy lifestyles with public spaces to exercise and open access to healthy foods, Johnson said.
Public policies can emphasize sidewalks and bike lanes that make it safe to get more physical activity.
Cities and counties can collaborate with businesses, too. With a 37-acre land donation, Renasant Bank is helping Hernando create a new city park.
“Every little bit helps,” Johnson said.
Although good health is correlated with wealth, poor, rural areas are not doomed to bad health.
“There are border counties in Texas with high rates of poverty, but have a long-lived population,” which Remington attributed to healthy lifestyles and strong family networks.