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Report: Hall among healthiest Georgia counties

POSTED: March 26, 2014 12:29 a.m.

Hall County is one of Georgia’s healthiest counties, according to a report released today.

The fifth annual County Health Rankings by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute ranked Hall County at No. 12 out of 159 counties. The ranking is based on the population’s overall quality and length of life and considers numerous factors.

The county’s current spot is slightly lower than in the past. Hall County ranked 11th in the state for health outcomes in 2013 and ninth in 2012.

Several neighboring counties also ranked among the state’s 15 healthiest. Forsyth County is No. 1, followed by Gwinnett County in fourth, Lumpkin County at ninth and Habersham County in 15th.

Hall County is ranked No. 32 on health factors, which examines behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment.

While specific health behaviors and having access to care seem like an obvious indication of the community’s overall health, other factors, such as poverty and education, are also heavily factored into the ranking.

Poverty, education, health all tied

Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said poverty can have a marked influence on a community’s overall health.

“Health is not just physical health,” Dyer said. “It is factors of physiologically, neurologically and psychologically that are in place for health development. It’s interesting because there is a lot of focus on poverty. People will say — not just in education but also in other areas — ‘Our problem is poverty. Our barrier is poverty.’ But you really have to look underneath and see what came first that resulted in poverty.”

The ranking data indicated 29 percent of children under the age of 18 in the county live in poverty. The state’s average is 27 percent.

The rate of children living in poverty has increased steadily since 2010, when it was at 17 percent.

Dyer said while the “cycle of poverty is so hard to break,” it can be done.

By ensuring they have adequate nutrition, immunizations and are engaged in language and learning opportunities from an early age, children in low-income households can continue to develop at a healthy level and achieve in school.

Dyer said the Gainesville and Hall County school systems are seeing success in student achievement and graduation rates.

According to the ranking data, 70 percent of high school students are graduating. The state’s average is 68 percent.

“That is not just happening on it’s own, though,” Dyer said. “There are a lot of support systems in place for students. For example, Lanier (Charter) Career Academy and Wood’s Mill High School that have flexible schedules and evening schools and different types of learning options through technology so that students who are having to work to help support their families or who might be parents can finish high school.”

Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said he has no doubt about a connection between a community’s health and education levels.

“There is certainly a high correlation between people following healthy practices and the levels of education,” Schofield said. “Now, whether that’s cause and effect or correlation I think we could argue that all day long, but certainly the more educated a community, by and large, the more healthy the community. Whether it’s dental health or heart health or general physical activity, there are strong correlations that we’ve known about for 50 years. The more educated the general population, the healthier the general population.”

The Hall County School District, in partnership with UnitedHealthcare, has been trying to instill healthy habits and encourage wellness in students for the last three years.

The wellness initiatives have been successful with many students, families and the school system as a whole, Schofield said.

Schofield said children will bring home the message of wellness and further improve the health of the community.
Battling obesity

While children might be starting to learn more about good health, the county’s current adult obesity level isn’t improving.

The study indicated obesity was one of the areas that may pose a challenge to the community’s health.

According to the data, 29 percent of adults in Hall are obese. The state’s average is 28 percent.

The county’s obesity rate has increased by 5 percent since 2010, according to the data.

Obesity can diminish quality of life and lead to a number of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

To help combat rising obesity rates, health care providers recommend increasing activity and adopting healthy eating habits.

The Greater Hall County Chamber of Commerce’s Vision 2030 project is aimed at improving the community and its overall health. The project has several “big ideas” that focus on providing access to health care and outdoor spaces for physical activity.

Meg Nivens, executive director of Vision 2030, said she feels the No. 12 spot is a positive sign of the project’s efforts to improve quality of life for Hall residents.

“We’d love to see ourselves at the very top of that (rank). That is the focus, the overall wellness of our community,” Nivens said. “There are so many different ways that we can achieve that.”

One way the community is working toward increased wellness is by encouraging health care partnerships and working with businesses and government to provide health and wellness opportunities, Nivens said.

The Vision 2030 Health Care Initiative Consortium, a group of health care leaders in Hall County who gather countywide data on top health indicators, is also studying the county’s health and how local initiatives may affect overall quality of life.

The consortium compiled the first of its study results in 2013 and indicated 70 to 80 percent of adults in the county were overweight or obese in 2011.

Working to improve health

Cheryl Christian, chairwoman of the Vision 2030 Health Care Committee and executive director of Good News Clinics, a nonprofit group in Gainesville that provides medical, pharmaceutical and dental care to uninsured residents in the county, said the health care community is making strides in improving individuals’ health.

Programs like the chamber’s annual HealthSmart Expo, which provides free health screenings, and the Good News Clinics’ new diabetes education program are helping to improve the health of individuals and the community, Christian said.

“I think we’re doing a lot of innovative things in this community that most communities can’t do,” Christian said. “Of course at Health Access through Good News Clinics, we have 240 physicians who are specialists who provide their care in their offices or operating rooms at no charge to patients. That’s just unheard of in Georgia to have all those resources. It does make a huge difference.”


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