Teen births drag health ranking down

Published 9:45 pm Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Suffolk’s low health ranking in a recent study is due mainly to a high teen birth rate and the city’s large proportion of rural areas, its interim Health Department director says.

Those are the factors to which Dr. Nancy Welch, the interim health director, attributes the city’s lowest-scoring numbers in a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The study looked at the rate of health issues such as low birth weight, sexually transmitted infections and rates of smoking, obesity and teen births, as well as environmental, social and economic factors.

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Suffolk ranked 70 among Virginia’s 132 localities in the study. That puts the city close to the middle, but still in the bottom half, of the state. It improved two spots from last year’s study.

“There are areas in each locality where they deserve accolades and areas where they need work,” Welch said.

Suffolk was ranked No. 92 in the behavior area, which was mainly because of high rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen births. The high rate of teen births, Welch added, also contributes to a high rate of babies born weighing less than they should, which contributes to a low overall score.

“We have graphed teen birth rates,” Welch said. “We know that they have a much higher low birth weight. I know those two are definitely related.”

But what hit the city’s score hardest was an extremely low score in the environmental factors section. The city scored only 124 in that category, but Welch believes that number is misleading.

The score included a low mark for access to healthy foods, which is measured by the percent of residential ZIP codes that have a “healthy food outlet,” defined as a grocery store, produce stand or farmers’ market.

However, Welch believes the city’s large size and rural nature of much of its land contributed to the low ranking.

“My guess is in a lot of the rural parts of Suffolk, they don’t have a lot of grocery stores, but they probably have more gardens,” Welch said. “It’s a problem of interpretation in rural communities. I’m not putting a whole lot of weight on the access to healthy foods parameter for Western Tidewater.”

The city ranked relatively high in the clinical section, which includes the ratio of physicians to residents and other factors that most individuals can’t help. However, even a low rate of mammogram screenings dragged that number down to 32 when it could have been higher, Welch said.

To see rankings for the entire nation, visit www.countyhealthrankings.org.