April 9, 2013

Whitfield, Murray far apart in recent health rankings

Charles Oliver

— History, family ties and economics bind Whitfield an Murray counties. But when it comes to the health of their residents, the two counties stand far apart.

Two new studies rank Whitfield County one of the healthiest counties in the state. Murray County fares worse, much worse, in one of the reports.

Whitfield County ranks 28th among Georgia’s 159 counties in “health outcomes,” according to the fourth annual “County Health Rankings,” published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County. Murray County ranks 121st.

Meanwhile, a separate report by Partner Up! for Public Health ranks Whitfield County 62nd and Murray County 95th among Georgia’s 159 counties. Partner Up! for Public Health is a statewide advocacy campaign funded by the Healthcare Georgia Foundation.

 The “County Health Rankings” health outcomes score is based on mortality — the years of life lost before age 75 per 100,000 population — and morbidity — the number of adults reporting fair or poor health, the average number of days in the past 30 days adults report poor physical or mental health, and the percentage of low-birthweight babies.

The Partner Up! rankings are based on factors such as poverty, life expectancy, education, the number of teen births and the number of cancer deaths.

Why such different outcomes for two counties so close to each other?

Nancy Kennedy, executive director of the Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership (NWGHP), points to the numbers of primary care physicians in each county.

According to the “County Health Rankings” study, in Whitfield County there are 1,835 residents for each primary care provider, compared to 1,611 for the state and 1,067 residents for each primary care provider in the United States as a whole. But in Murray County, there are 4,394 residents for each primary care provider.

“There could be a correlation between those reports of poor health and the shortage of providers in Murray County,” Kennedy said. “Of course, some of those people come to providers in Whitfield County. But it may be that some of them just aren’t seeing a physician.”

When it comes to dentists, Murray County fares even more poorly. In Whitfield County, there are 2,731 residents for every dentist, compared to 2,249 for the state and 1,516 residents for each dentist in the nation. But in Murray County, there are 9,950 residents for each dentist.

“Dental care isn’t just about teeth. Poor dental health has been linked to heart disease and other health issues,” Kennedy said.

Both counties fare poorly on some important measures. According to the “County Health Rankings” study 22 percent of adults smoke in Whitfield County and 29 percent smoke in Murray County. By comparison, statewide just 19 percent of adults in Georgia smoke and only 13 percent of adults smoke nationwide. In Whitfield County, 28 percent of adults report that, other than when required by work, they do not engage in any regular physical activity or exercise. In Murray County, 32 percent report they are physically inactive. By comparison, for Georgia as a whole, 24 percent report they are physically inactive, and just 21 percent report they are physically inactive nationwide.

“Smoking and tobacco use, on average, takes 16.4 years off of a person’s life, so increased tobacco use and lack of exercise would certainly lead to poor health and shorter lives,” said Dr. Don Thomas, a Dalton physician who treats patients from both counties.

“And as far as premature deaths, I’ve noticed that Murray County seems to have more auto accidents and accidental deaths,” Thomas said.

In fact, the “County Health Rankings” study found that the motor vehicle crash death rate in Murray County is 27 per 100,000 population, compared to 17 in Whitfield County, 16 for Georgia as a whole and just 10 per 100,000 population for the nation.

“It may be because there are more rural roads there. I hope that people are buckling up, but I notice every now and then we have a pickup truck death and they weren’t buckled up,” Thomas said.

Murray County Sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman said she was disappointed in that county’s rankings.

“Many leaders of our community are working hand in hand to improve the health of our community from county government, the healthcare partnership, Murray Medical Center, the local school system, the board of health and the chamber of commerce and realize that a healthier community results in increased productivity and lower health care cost. We have to work collaboratively together to emphasis the importance of exercise and healthy living throughout our community,” she said. “We all have a vested interest in making Murray County a healthier community. Through our partnerships we have many programs in place throughout our county to aide in the health of our community, community in motion that promotes active lifestyle, diabetes awareness education, community health fairs, in school education about obesity and the effects of sugary beverage consumption, just to name a few. Our overall community health will continue to be an area of focus of mine going forward.”

Kennedy said the NWGHP has recently received a grant to focus on diabetes management in Murray County.

“That’s the area we are going to focus in first. We are going to try to identify seniors, 55 and up, who have diabetes and aren’t managing it,” he said. “We know that the results of poorly managed diabetes can be awful. We are talking amputations, dialysis even death. So we need to work with those people who aren’t managing it.”