Northern WV Residents Healthier Than Southern

McDowell County residents are the least healthy in West Virginia while Pendleton County's residents are doing best. Those findings are in a new report that ranks U.S. counties based on the health of their residents.
The County Health Rankings report released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin evaluates more than two dozen factors that researchers believe influence a person's health, including behaviors, like smoking cigarettes, access to hospitals and clinics, income, and the physical environment where they live.

Bridget Booske is deputy director of the County Health Rankings project, which released its first national report in 2010.

"We look at how long people live, in particular we look at people who die before the age of 75, because a large proportion of those deaths could be prevented, and McDowell's premature death rate is well over twice that of Pendleton's, so within one state, that's a big difference," said Booske.

The report shows Pendleton does not have good access to hospitals, but Booske said that's one point the report makes: a person's health is about more than access to health care.

"I will say that within West Virginia the biggest difference between the healthiest and least healthy do tend to be around smoking cigarettes rates," Booske said.

West Virginia often falls at the bottom of the list in national health rankings, but this report gives a more local perspective on health issues by evaluating each county.

The report shows that in the state there is generally a north-south divide when it comes to the health of the population.

For example, the ten healthiest counties in the state according to the report are: Pendleton, Tucker, Monongalia, Grant, Wirt, Jefferson, Putnam, Hampshire, Marshall and Berkeley. The ten least healthy counties are: McDowell, Mingo, Wyoming, Logan, Boone, Lincoln, Mercer, Wayne, Gilmer and Summers.

Booske hopes everyone will use the information to see where their community could improve.

"What we hope is they'll take action," said Booske. "They'll take a look more closely at the data and figure out the areas where they can improve."

That's exactly what Dr. J. Loren Smith did when last year's report was released. He’s physician director of the Lincoln County Health Department. Smith worked with the County Commission last year to organize a summit that brought together individuals and community leaders to determine ways to improve the population's health.

"One project, for example, is in narcotic anonymous and alcohol anonymous that are vital to those wanting to recover, there was just one small program in the county, and we're trying to institute those programs in each of the three sections of the county," said Smith.

"Additionally, through the churches, I realized that we could utilize church volunteer nursing, which would be an additional way of approaching health care needs of people who may not for some reason find it opportune to see their physician, and it would help initiate some concern for those who do need help."

Smith said Lincoln County fared well in the physical environment category, and he thinks that's an asset to use when looking for ways to improve the health of residents.

"I'm aware that bicycling is considered interesting in Lincoln County, because of the topography and the remoteness, and I feel we need to develop bicycle trails as a means to promote exercise," said Smith. "Another project is to develop more walking trails within the county."

Lincoln County could receive some financial help with these projects.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also announced Wednesday that it will provide grants to 14 communities in the country to help strengthen local efforts to improve public health.

The Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University's Center on Human Needs also developed an interactive County Health Calculator to illustrate how social factors impact a person's health.