By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
For the fourth year in a row, McDowell County has been ranked last in an annual study to determine the health of West Virginia residents.
McDowell County was ranked 55 out of 55 in the study released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin researchers, which grades counties based on health factors including smoking, excessive drinking, birth weight, obesity, teen pregnancy, number of fast food restaurants, access to healthy food, number of children in poverty, and level of education.
Other local counties also received lower rankings. Mercer County ranked 50 out of the 55 counties in West Virginia while Monroe County ranked toward the middle of the pack at 36 out of 55.
Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, said he was disappointed to see the county again ranked at the bottom.
“It’s absolutely disappointing to see these statistics and facts about McDowell County,” Moore said. “It seems we are at the very bottom of every positive list and at the top of every negative list when it comes to things such as our health care ratings.”
According to the survey, McDowell County ranks last in the state for mortality with more than 17,600 residents at risk for premature death. Approximately 33 percent of county residents are ranked in “poor or fair health.” The survey found 36 percent of adult residents smoke, 33 percent are obese, 44 percent are “physically inactive” and 10 percent drink excessively. The study further found one in five residents are uninsured and only 46 percent of eligible women receive mammograms. The study found 46 percent of the county’s children live below the poverty line and the teen birth rate is nearly double the state average.
However, Moore said county officials are working on initiatives to improve the health of county residents.
“We are working on two projects with West Virginia University,” Moore said. “The first program will allow us to gather information and build activity spots throughout the county. This program will also help us partner with our local schools to open up their facilities for recreational activities after school hours for people in the community. The second project is to develop a funding proposal, business plans and feasibility study to actually construct a health and wellness center for the county. This will not only have recreation as a health concept but be an economic driver as well to help diversify McDowell County. We need to improve our health because we need a healthy workforce to attract the kinds of jobs we need. We also need a healthy workforce so we have a workforce capable of performing and keeping those jobs.”
Tim Crofton, executive director of the Tug River Health Clinic, said there are several ongoing initiatives working to improve the health of county residents.
“We have centers at Gary and Northfork and two school-based health centers,” Crofton said. “We’ve been looking at various programs in addition to the usual medical services including working with Reconnecting McDowell. We are focusing on trying to help the elementary school kids and problems that are very real like head lice. As far as women’s health, we try to encourage them to do cervical cancer screenings though we haven’t had as much of a response as we would have liked to have. We have improved the access to our centers and are accepting people on a walk-in basis and on appointments so people can come in when they are sick. One of the things we are working on is behavior health, which is a real need in McDowell County.”
Crofton said he would also like to see improved fitness programs in the county.
“I would like to see more happen with our fitness center programs, though we had to suspend those operations because we couldn’t get enough money for repairs to the building,” he said. “I would also see folks who are interested to come together and pool funds to build a new fitness center. We need that and support from the community to do that. We have to move together as a team.”
In Mercer County, 25 percent of residents were ranked by the study as being in “poor or fair health” and 34 percent of the county’s children ranked as living in poverty. The study found 34 percent of Mercer County adults are obese, 28 percent smoke, 35 percent are physically inactive and 6 percent drink excessively.
Judy Bolton, RN, a public health nurse with the Mercer County Health Department, said several factors impact health in the county.
“There are several reasons why Mercer is rated low,” Bolton said. “One of the biggest is the amount of illegal drug use in our county. That leads to all sorts of health problems. Most of the time, the drug addicts cannot work so they don’t eat properly. We are number one for Hepatitis B rates in the nation and number three for Hepatitis C in the nation. We have a generation growing up here that is very unhealthy from drug abuse. The economic opportunities in our area are limited as well, so most people cannot afford better food and things like that.”
Bolton said sedentary lifestyles and the culture of the county also impact health rankings.
“Part of this is cultural things like people eating out a lot or not eating properly at home,” she said. “This can lead to obesity and hypertension. Access to health care is another issue. We did a community assessment in December 2012 where we did a survey. We picked various groups in the community to get a random sampling on, and only 18 percent of the people we talked with actually said they had health insurance. Only 14 percent had a physical check up with a doctor in the past year.”
Bolton said the recent county health survey the department conducted is one of the ways they are looking to improve the health of Mercer County residents.
“This survey was our start to help get an idea of what is really out there,” she said. “We are going to try to do things through the schools. We have a program now where we give free Hepatitis B shots to people at risk and talk to them about ways to improve their health by offering that vaccine, which is a state program. We are also talking with our local media to get the message out there.”