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County Health Rankings Highlights Risks & Benefits In Tri-County Area

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute are out with their 2017 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report.

First released in 2011, the report, shows that where you live really matters to your health.

“So your zip code is the best predictor of how long and how well you’ll live,” said Jan O’Neill, Associate Researcher and Community Coach with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. “And the other key message here is that good health is so much more than just seeing a doctor.”

O’Neill points out that our health is tied to a vast array of factors, including the opportunity for a good job with good wages, as well as the opportunity to attend high quality schools, live in a smoke-free environment and a place that’s safe to play and exercise, access to health foods and so on.

For this year, the Rankings introduced a new measure referred to as “disconnected youth,” which is defined as young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and don’t have a job. It’s not a ranking. But, O’Neill says the stats show a problem in that one-in-eight young people fall into this category, on a national level.

Another significant finding in 2017 is the dramatic increase in premature deaths nationally, with 85 percent of the overall spike attributed to an increase in deaths among younger Americans.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s an increase in deaths among 15-44 year olds and this is largely driven by drug overdoses,” O’Neill said. “However, having said that, for the ages of 15-24, while drugs did have an impact, we’re also seeing increases for them in car crashes, suicides and homicides.”

In Florida, the Rankings for 2017 show that St. John’s County, located along the northeast Atlantic coast, ranks healthiest in state; while nearby Union County is the least healthy county.

Looking specifically at Florida’s premature death trends from 1997 to 2014, the report shows 46 counties have seen improvements in premature death rates, while only two have seen worsening rates and the rest saw no change.

In Escambia County, which for 2017 ranks 58 out of the state’s 67 counties, the premature death rate has been trending up over the last three years.

“It’s [premature death rate] pretty high, it’s a rate at 9,300, whereas in Florida it’s 6,700. Okaloosa is less than that and Santa Rosa is even less than that.”

That’s a premature death rate of 6,500 for Santa Rosa, which is the seventh healthiest county this year. It’s a rate of 6,800 for Okaloosa, which is ranked 11.

Many of the health factors and outcomes across the three western-most counties are on-par, such as adult smoking and obesity, access to exercise opportunities, and the percentage of people who are uninsured.

But some of the separators include graduation rates, children in poverty and violent crime, which are all worse in Escambia. Another measure is drug overdoses, which totaled 57 in Santa Rosa. Okaloosa had 79 and Escambia had the highest total of 125.

According to O’Neill, the Rankings report not only shows counties how healthy they are, it also provides targeted information on where they’re getting good results and where they need improvement. And, help with how to move forward with solutions for each community is available, too.

“We do have on countyhealthrankings.org, strategies that have been vetted by our team here at the university to look at what really works in communities. So, there are actual strategies that other communities have used and depending on your community, it might work for yours.”

Some of those strategies include, community policing, Good Samaritan drug overdose laws, and “cradle to career” initiatives such as Achieve Escambia.

In addition to her role as a researcher, O’Neill is a community coach, and works with teams of a vast cross-section of community partners. Locally, she spent about a year working with Live Well Northwest Florida. Under the umbrella of the Partnership for a Healthy Community, it’s a long-term collaborative effort to improve the overall health of residents in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

What they were trying to do and did do was build out there coalition to be stronger, to have more partners from different sectors and to prioritize where they were going to focus as a community,” said O’Neill, who wrapped up her coaching with an on-site meeting. “They had a very focused conversation about what the data were telling them about where they should focus and where their priority should be.”

After the 2016 County Health Rankings, and their own Health Needs Assessment, Live Well Northwest Florida identified three health priorities for the two-county area. They include 1) Healthy weight and nutrition, 2) Tobacco use, and 3) Access to healthcare services.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.
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