By John L. Ross, Staff Writer
Change for the better – that’s what local health departments expect to focus on after the county health rankings report was released recently.
Whitley, Knox and Laurel counties were comparatively ranked against Kentucky’s other 117 counties concerning healthy living.
Laurel County was the highest ranked of the three counties — they are number 64 out of 120.
Whitley and Knox counties were ranked lower — numbers 96 and 98, respectively, out of 120.
Information for determining the ranking is gathered from various resources, then studied and put together in this annual rankings program.
The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program is a collaborative effort between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
According to Gail Timperio, director of the Whitley County Health Department, this report came out just as health department directors statewide were preparing for the Kentucky Public Health Association meeting last week in Louisville.
She said that a representative from the University of Wisconsin was on hand at that meeting.
“We heard some very interesting information,” Timperio said. “It was a really good session.”
She added the representative shared ways counties can become healthier.
Some interesting finds came from that rankings report, according to Timperio.
“When it comes to clinical care, we ranked high (30 out of 120) because (the report) takes into account the congestion of health care providers we have,” she said. “There are so many located on the Whitley side of Corbin and in Williamsburg.”
Timperio said that was also discussed at the meeting.
“We have to look at our own communities and why we ranked well there,” she said. “We know our county, so when we look at the criteria (for the rankings), we can reason through and figure out how (they arrived at these numbers).”
Timperio said some factors used in the rankings are out of their hands.
“We can’t change those,” she said.
Some of those difficult to change include smoking policies, socioeconomic factors, available social programs, and the physical environment.
“If you look at the map you can see all the green counties — the greener it is, the worse they are,” Timperio said. All of southeastern Kentucky is a various shade of dark green.
“Counties to the north, where there are more jobs, lower unemployment and a better-built environment, they (are shaded) in white,” she said, adding the “dark green” southeastern counties of Kentucky, including Whitley, Knox and Laurel counties, are all considered “distressed.” That was according to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).
“We all have to pull together as a community for improvement,” Timperio said.
She pointed out another notable rank.
“We are 71 in health factors,” she said, adding that Laurel County ranks 79 and Knox ranks 106.
“There’s been a smoking ordinance (put in place) in Laurel County years ago,” Timperio said. “We (moved to) 71 because of the smoking ordinances now in Williamsburg and Corbin — that’s part of the health factors. The smoking ordinances bumped us up in the rankings.”
But the overall rank of 96 “is where Whitley County ran so low,” she said. “Health outcomes include tobacco use, diet, exercise, alcohol use and sexual activities.”
She explained that the “mortality” ranking is “the length of life,” and the “morbidity” ranking is “the quality of life.”
Report administrators also conducted a random telephone survey of county residents, according to Timperio.
“It’s a self-report,” she said, adding all types of health- and activity-related questions are posed.
“(So) we, as Whitley Countians, can see how healthy we live,” she said, adding the report is available online so residents can seek ways to improve their healthy lifestyles.
She also said the report looks at other viable factors, including a behavioral risk factor surveillance system, poor health days, premature death rates, and, as mentioned, the morbidity factors.
Also looked at, according to Timperio, are highway-related traffic fatalities. Interstate 75, which bisects Whitley County and also runs through Laurel County, sees thousands of vehicles per day, which increases the chances of fatal traffic crashes.
“To have the interstate split the county in two is going to effect community safety,” she said.
“I think this is good for the community leaders and the community members,” Timperio said.
She said that it was only coincidental that Whitley County’s Healthy Community group met the day after the rankings were released.
“When these rankings came out on March 21, the (group) met to talk about those very issues,” Timperio said, adding anyone is invited to attend those health meetings. A new meeting has yet to be scheduled, but at any time if enough people are interested, Timperio said they will hold a meeting.
For more information on those meetings, or other questions, contact the Whitley County Health Department at 606-549-3380.
Knox County Health Department Director Susan Liford also seeks ways for Knox Countians to improve their healthy lifestyle habits.
Knox County was ranked 98 out of 120. Liford said she, too, attended the conference in Louisville last week.
“We can do something about it,” she said. “We developed the Knox County Health Coalition.”
She added the coalition has been in place for some time.
“This (allows) community members to work together to promote a healthy environment,” Liford said, adding that preventative medicine would help residents “stay out of the doctor’s office.”
She added a decrease in residents who smoke, as well as additional “no smoking” policies for the county would help their health ranking, as well as more accessible fruits and vegetables.
“We looked at all of these things through the Coalition,” Liford said. “We have the bike and walking trail on the other side of the flood wall.”
She added there will soon be improved signage along those trails. She said another walking trail is located in the Girdler community, along with a picnic area, which is now lighted. At Thompson Park, there is available exercise equipment, Liford said, but “we’d like some things geared toward children’s exercise.”
Concerning the accessibility to fruits and vegetables, Liford said there is now a Farmer’s Market in the Court Square “beside the fire station in that parking lot.” She said the county also participates in the “Farm to School” program, where local farmers provide the food eaten by the county’s school-age students.
“We want to expand that,” she said, adding that farmers can sign up so their locally-grown produce can be provided to the schools.
Liford said they work with the KCEOC Community Action Partnership, and will continue to do so.
“(They go) to several sites and speak to the children,” she said.
The meeting in Louisville was very timely.
“We’ve got a lot that we’re starting to do,” she said.
But it takes the community too.
“They have to take the initiative for themselves,” Liford said. “We can provide (all the resources) but people have to take advantage of them.”
She said the health department offers free smoking cessation classes.
“We try to do three a year,” Liford said. “It’s a 13-week program that meets one hour per week.”
Other free programs are offered at the Knox County Health Department.
“We have diabetic support classes as well,” she said. “It’s at the health department for the community.
“Anything we do at the health department is free,” Liford added.
Health care has changed during the last several decades.
“We’re in a trend now moving toward more preventative care as opposed to clinical care,” Liford said. “We’re going to be more proactive in our community — that’s where our focus is going to be.”
For more information about the report or other health issues, contact the Knox County Health Department at 606-546-3486.
Laurel County was the highest ranked between Knox, Laurel and Whitley counties. They are listed as 64 out of 120 counties.
The Laurel County Health Department offers several things to assist community members improve their personal health habits.
Their office is located at 525 Whitley Street in London. Office hours are 7:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Their telephone number is 606-878-7754.
But their presence is not only in their London office. Through Facebook, the department is able to reach potentially hundreds of residents through their open pages.
That page offers ideas and solutions for those interested in quitting smoking. There is also the potential for interaction between the residents and the health department.
The health department also offers preventative care, including various cancer screenings. Also offered is testing for the multitude of sexually-transmitted diseases plaguing society, including HIV and chlamydia testing.
They also provide ways to monitor or learn about diabetes and the risk factors involved.
Laurel County Health Department also shares ways for community members to see their risks for breast cancer, their pets’ risks for rabies, ways to eat safe at various community events and festivals.
They also offer mental health help.
The behaviors and socioeconomic rankings for Laurel County really showed the biggest challenge for improving the county’s rank.
While overall Laurel County ranks 64, in health behaviors the county ranks at 92, while the county ranks 80 overall in contributing socioeconomic factors.
The county ranks better concerning mortality rates — number 53. The clinical care rank is better as well — the county came in at number 58.
Physical environment held Laurel County to an even better rank — 51 out of 120.