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Hall medical professionals believe countys ranking sends mixed messages
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Local medical professionals are not happy about a state report that ranks Hall County among the worst in Georgia for minority health.

About two dozen people attended a meeting in Gainesville on Tuesday afternoon to voice their opinions about the "Health Disparities Report 2008," recently published by the Georgia Department of Community Health.

Each person received a free copy of the lavishly produced, 356-page document. Some expressed dismay as they thumbed through it and saw that Hall was listed among the 15 "worst" counties.

Jackson and Clarke counties also made the "worst" list. On the other hand, White, Lumpkin, Forsyth, and Gwinnett all were listed among the "best" counties.

The rankings are based on "years of potential life lost due to premature deaths in minority populations." On this measure, Hall had a "black-white inequalities ratio" of 2.16, meaning that black residents tend to die much younger than whites. Forsyth County, on the other hand, had a ratio of only 0.55.

Each of Georgia’s 159 counties was given a report card on various health measurements. On mortality, or excess deaths among blacks, Forsyth got a grade of A, while Hall got an F.

Hall also got an F for having too many preventable emergency-room visits and hospitalizations, and a D+ for prenatal care and birth outcomes.

Dr. Greg Delong, a Gainesville physician who volunteers at Good News Clinics, took issue with the state’s methodology.

"Some of us feel like we’re not deserving of being named as one of the worst counties in Georgia," he said. "I don’t think it’s possible to correlate our ‘F’ with premature loss of life. Some of the statistics they looked at were for things like motor vehicle accidents, which have no relation to access to health care."

Some participants wondered how Hall could have received an F for preventable ER visits, despite getting a B for access to primary care.

"There’s mixed messages here," said LeTrell Simpson, a retired administrator from Northeast Georgia Medical Center. "I find this (report) not very credible. It creates a false perception, which I think is more damaging than having no information at all."

Kristal Ammons, program consultant for minority health at the Georgia Department of Community Health, served as moderator for the discussion. She said she was not there to argue about the statistics, which were derived from state and federal databases.

"The intent of this report is to inspire advocacy," Ammons said. "As opposed to being a study, it’s an analysis of available data on hand. More detailed county report cards will become available as more data is collected."

Cheryl Christian, director of Good News Clinics, which provides care to the poor at no charge, said state officials never bothered to consult with those who are actually addressing the issue of access to health care on a local level.

"We were not contacted for statistics by DCH," she said.

And while Hall’s B grade for primary care seems pretty good, Christian said, "I really feel that we have one of the strongest primary care access networks in the state. We (at Good News) see about 200 new patients a month."

Ammons said the report is not the final word on the subject. "This is a starting point," she said. "I don’t care if you disagree with the data. At least it inspires conversation."

Dr. David Westfall, director of District 2 Public Health in Gainesville, praised DCH for drawing attention to the issue of minority health disparities. But he said the data is so difficult to wade through that people may rely on sound bites and get the wrong impression.

"I think some people just glancing at the report will misinterpret it and say, ‘Hall County got an F.’" Westfall said. "You need to get the message out that Hall has wonderful health care, but not everybody has access to it."

But why don’t they have access, considering the resources that are available?

Participants offered various theories. Minorities may delay getting treatment because of financial difficulties. They may not have transportation for doctor appointments. When they do see a doctor, he may not have time to explain their condition and treatment in a way that they can understand.

Sara Nash, a resident of Gainesville’s Newtown neighborhood, believes medical providers aren’t reaching out to black people in their communities.

"I know there are disparities," she said. "I think it’s about access to information."

Nash added that African-Americans tend to feel more comfortable when information is provided to them by someone who shares their ethnic background.

Ammons said the DCH’s Georgia Health Equity Initiative is trying to eliminate these barriers to care. The program is offering grants, ranging from $75,000 to $100,000, to community organizations that are attempting to reduce health disparities among minorities.

Grant applications will be accepted until July 10. For more information about the grant program, contact 404-651-7987.