City’s health rank improves

Published 10:44 pm Friday, March 22, 2013

Suffolk improved three places in the annual County Health Rankings released this week by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The city is ranked 66th out of 133 localities in the state. That’s an improvement from 69th last year and 72nd in 2010, the first year the rankings were compiled.

“Trend-wise, Suffolk is continuing to improve both on health outcomes and health factors,” said

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Dr. Nancy Welch, director of the Western Tidewater Health District. “I think we’re going in the right direction.”

The rankings are based on health outcomes, such as premature death and low birth weight, as well as health factors — behavior measures such as the rates of smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, sexually transmitted infections and teen births; clinical care factors, such as the number of physicians and dentists and screening rates; social statistics such as the high school graduation rate and the number of children living in poverty; and facets of the physical environment, such as access to recreational facilities and the number of fast food restaurants.

Suffolk had a marked improvement in mortality — essentially a measure of premature death. And while it didn’t improve at all in most health behaviors (smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, excessive drinking and the motor vehicle crash death rate), the city saw sharp decreases in sexually transmitted infections and the teen birth rate, which Welch saw as some of the best news out of the report.

“That is something we’ve been diligently working on,” said Welch, who noted the teen birth rate has dropped statewide. She attributed the decline to the economy, better education and accessibility to birth control.

The city’s rank improved nine spots in the clinical care category, where it did better in preventable hospital stays, diabetic screening and the percentage of uninsured residents than in 2010.

“The main thing I think clinical care has improved on is preventable hospital stays,” she said. “That is generally a reflection of availability and accessibility to clinical care on an outpatient basis.”

In social and economic factors, the city’s percentage of residents with a high school diploma and with some college both increased, and the unemployment rate and violent crime rate decreased. But the percentage of children in poverty and in single-parent households both increased slightly.

Welch saw the increase in education as the best news in this section.

“Most people in public health acknowledge that one of the most important things to improve health is education — not education about health, but just education, so you can get a job, have less chance to be in poverty and have a strong knowledge base to take care of yourself,” she said. “The most consistent corollary with improved health status is education.”

Patrick Edmunds of Healthy People/Healthy Suffolk lauded the improved numbers but said there still is room for improvement.

“Suffolk’s improved overall health rankings are evidence of the entire community coming together to rally around the health of its citizens,” Edmunds said. “Local organizations like the Suffolk Partnership for a Healthy Community and the Obici Healthcare Foundation — as well as city departments, public schools, health care providers and private industry leaders — are working hard to build awareness around key health issues. These recent numbers are inspiring, but we have more work to do.”