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Hall ranked 13th most healthy county in state
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Medical personnel pose for portraits at the Longstreet Clinic's Braselton campus in Braselton, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

Hall ranks 13th of 159 counties in Georgia in overall health outcomes, according to rankings released Wednesday, March 14, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute.

But its child poverty rate of 20 percent, while lower than the state average of 23 percent, is higher than the best-performing counties in the nation, which have an average rate of just 12 percent.

That factor has local health care providers and nonprofits focused on ways to both alleviate poverty and address the negative health issues it can produce.

The rankings of every county in the state and nation analyzed more than 30 health factors, including education, housing, jobs, transportation and access to medical care, “that influence how long and how well people live,” according to the corresponding report.

Hall County performs mostly well in the rankings, coming in at 10th of all counties in the state in length of life expectancy.

The ninth annual County Health Rankings, released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute are available at www.countyhealthrankings.org.

Hall benefits from an unemployment rate below 5 percent and a high school graduation rate of 83 percent, both of which are better than state averages.

But it does have a shortage of mental health providers, with just one provider per 1,350 residents. The state average is one provider per 830 residents, and the top-performing counties in the nation have one provider for every 330 residents.

According to the 2018 rankings, the five healthiest counties in Georgia, starting with most healthy, are Forsyth, Oconee, Cherokee, Fayette and Gwinnett.

Quitman County, located on the Georgia-Alabama border south of Columbus, is the least healthy county in the state, according to the list.

The new rankings “call attention to key drivers of health such as children in poverty,” the report states. “This year’s analyses show that lack of opportunity, such as education, jobs and affordable housing, disproportionately affects people of color across the nation and within Georgia.”   

“Poverty limits opportunity and increases the chance of poor health,” the report continues. “Children in poverty are less likely to have access to well-resourced and quality schools, and have fewer chances to be prepared for living wage jobs.”

Mimi Collins, CEO of The Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville, said rankings such as these are important because they may provide new data points to gauge how well local health providers are serving patients.

“We want to know what the statistics look like and make sure the work we’re doing is addressing things where we can and where it’s appropriate,” she added.

For example, Hall has a particularly high rate of uninsured individuals at 21 percent versus just 16 percent statewide and only 6 percent in the best-performing counties across the nation.

Lack of health insurance goes hand in hand with things, Collins said, like obesity and diabetes monitoring, health issues where Hall ranks behind or near state averages.

And while the county has a low unemployment rate, Collins said, wages are depressed for many families, creating difficult financial decisions that sometimes sacrifice health care for basic living expenses.

And childhood poverty is a concern that is drawing together organizations across Hall.

“That’s the workforce for the future,” Collins said. “To me, it’s one of the areas … we need to have a healthy population. The way we do that is address it at the earliest possible age.”

Christy Moore, manager of community health improvement for the Northeast Georgia Health System, said it’s critical for health care providers to look beyond clinical care to social and economic issues that play a huge role in health, particularly for children.

For example, Moore said research shows that the wealthiest individuals have a life expectancy of 10-15 years longer than the poorest Americans because poverty can create “toxic stress” that affects brain development and increases children’s potential to develop mental health or substance issues in adulthood.  

“Health rankings like this are helpful, but I think we have to remember that it is just a snapshot of a community’s overall health,” Moore added. “As a health care provider, it’s also important to remember that no one organization can do it alone. We are really trying to make the point that health is so much more than the absence of disease — it has many dimensions including social, emotional, spiritual, occupational …”

A local health care consortium operated through the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and Vision 2030 group — which includes partners such as TLC, NGHS, Brenau University and the Good News Clinics — has completed three health assessments, two for adults and one for children, in recent years.

This local data is extrapolated from patient health records, Collins said, adding that it’s “really unusual research” with a sample size of approximately 40,000.

A lot of what’s highlighted is the importance of access to care, how depression impacts other health measures and how childhood poverty contributes to negative health outcomes in adulthood.

“We really tried to highlight the work the whole community is doing in this space,” Collins said, “because everything is interconnected.”

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