Cabarrus among healthiest counties; Rowan 62nd

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 31, 2011

By Karissa Minn and Scott Jenkins
Cabarrus County is among the healthiest counties in North Carolina, while Rowan ranks in the bottom half, according to a report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
The annual report released Wednesday measures residents’ longevity and overall health, factoring in the rate of premature deaths, behaviors such as smoking and binge drinking, and social and economic circumstances such as poverty and education level.
Cabarrus improved two spots from ninth-healthiest in 2010 to seventh statewide this year. Rowan held steady at No. 62 out of 100 North Carolina counties — a ranking the county’s health director, Leonard Wood, said he was “disappointed” to see.
“I think Rowan County can do better than that,” Wood said. “I think if more resources are put into promoting health, promoting education and dealing with these issues, things would come around.”
He has sent an e-mail to county commissioners and the Board of Health about the data and is in the process of analyzing it. Wood said he hopes the local medical community, human services community and others will work together to figure out what they can do to improve the county’s health.
The report’s findings were not all negative for Rowan.
Dari Caldwell, president of Rowan Regional Medical Center, said she and Wood were reviewing the report. Caldwell pointed out several areas in which Rowan had better numbers than Cabarrus — preventable hospital days (Cabarrus 79, Rowan 66), mammography screening (Cabarrus 65 percent, Rowan 67 percent) and excessive drinking (Cabarrus 11 percent, Rowan 10 percent).
Wake County was ranked the healthiest county in North Carolina, while Columbus County ranked at the bottom.
According to the statistics collected, 28 percent of adults in Rowan said they were smokers, compared to 22 percent in Cabarrus and statewide. Residents reported more poor physical and mental health days in Rowan, and more children live in poverty.
“A lot of it goes back to education, socioeconomic status and willingness to change behavior,” Wood said. “This is not a health department problem — this is a community problem.”
He said the county health department works to educate the community — especially students — about the risks of obesity, smoking and excessive drinking. But it’s often up to parents to give strong guidance to their children on these issues.
Some county residents don’t have access to affordable health care as a result of high unemployment and a sluggish economy.
The study noted that access to larger cities with higher paying jobs and more healthy lifestyle options was a significant factor in the overall health status of residents.
It also shows that overall, rural counties made their strongest showing in the category of environmental factors, such as clean air and clean water.
But Rowan ranked worst in the state for physical environment, with 23 ozone pollution days. Cabarrus had 14, Wake had seven. The statewide average was one day.
John Wear, executive director of the Center for the Environment at Catawba College, said ozone is formed from nitrogen oxide released in burning fossil fuels. Because the process is slow, chemical reaction doesn’t always create ozone where pollution is released.
Rowan generally is downwind from vehicle pollution in Charlotte and a coal-burning plant near Lake Norman, Wear said. If the prevailing winds shift direction, the county then is downwind from Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point.
“In this area, even though we may not produce the majority of pollutants as a source — we still produce some — we get it because of the movement of that air,” he said.
One of the big differences between Rowan and Cabarrus is in the number of primary care providers in each county. Rowan has one primary care doctor for every 1,487 residents, while Cabarrus has nearly twice as many, one primary care doctor for every 705 residents.
“We do have a shortage of primary care providers, dental providers and general health care providers,” Wood said. “I think we offer a lot (for professionals), and this is a wonderful community… but whether we offer enough to draw in enough people, I don’t know.”
The number of primary care providers in Cabarrus is higher than the number in Wake County, which has one for every 835 residents, and the statewide average of one provider for every 859 residents.
Rowan has higher rates of teen births and sexually transmitted infections than those of Cabarrus County and the state.
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Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.