PANAMA CITY— Only two counties in the state are less healthy than Washington County, according to rankings released by a nonprofit organization Wednesday. Bay and other Panhandle counties finished closer to the middle of the pack.
The “2013 County Health Rankings” outlined several factors, which, directly or indirectly, impact residents’ overall well-being. These included smoking, drinking, obesity, teen pregnancy and even high school graduation. The study was conducted as a partnership between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. It included nearly every county in the U.S.
“It’s not a huge surprise,” Rick Davis said of Washington County’s near-bottom ranking, 65th out of 67 counties.
As the county’s health department administrator, Davis is aware Washington County has been ranked poorly for the last three or four years, remaining in the bottom 10. Last year it was 64th.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that the population’s health in Washington County and most small, rural counties is below average for the state,” he said.
Washington County performed worse than the state average in nearly every category. For example, 25 percent of its residents are in “poor or fair health,” compared to 16 percent statewide and 17 percent in Bay County. About 9 percent of the county’s babies are born with a low birth weight, compared to 8.7 percent statewide and 8.4 percent in Bay County.
Twenty-seven percent of the county’s adults smoke; 19 percent smoke statewide and 22 percent do in Bay County. Thirty-six percent of the county’s adults are obese, compared with 26 percent statewide and 27 percent in Bay County.
Washington County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ted Everett cited the study at the Third Thursday Chamber meeting on March 21.
"We have to do something as a society about childhood obesity," Everett said. He said the Chamber has partnered with Northwest Florida Community Hospital for the "We Can" program, which strives to teach students and parents about nutrition and exercise.
Thirty percent of the county’s adults report not exercising in their leisure time, compared with 24 percent statewide and in Bay County.
Another striking figure is the teen birth rate, which was very high in rural counties. For every 1,000 female teenagers 15 to19 years old, Washington County had 57 births compared 40 statewide.
Bay County had 56 births per 1,000 teens; Calhoun County had 57; Franklin County had 82; Gulf County had 44; Holmes County had 68 births; Jackson County had 55; and Walton County had 53.
Davis said the county’s health department offers minors free, confidential birth control and no parents will ever be notified of their visit. Increased use of the free service could reduce teen pregnancy numbers in the future.
In Bay County, minors also can get free, confidential birth control from the Health Department, but they must fill it at a pharmacy. Adults also can receive free birth control, provided they meet certain income criteria, said Julia Ruschmann, county health department spokeswoman. Free condoms always are available.
Ruschmann said the Health Department does not assist teens looking to get an abortion.
Overall, Bay County ranked 35th of the state’s 67 counties; last year it was 34th. Calhoun County was 46th; Franklin County was 33rd; Gulf County was 34th; Holmes County was 52nd; Jackson County was 49th; and Walton County was 41st.
Of the eight counties, Franklin County had the worst high school graduation rate at 59 percent, and Gulf had the highest smoking rate at 29 percent.
Of the eight counties, Calhoun County followed Washington County with an obesity rate of 34 percent, followed by Jackson at 33 percent.
Income and availability of healthy food can be a factor. Thirty-four percent of the children in Washington County live in poverty, compared to 25 percent statewide and 23 percent in Bay County. Meanwhile, 52 percent of Washington County’s restaurants are fast-food joints, compared with 44 percent statewide and 42 percent in Bay County.
For the state, 71 percent of high schoolers graduated in four years, while 59 percent of adults had “some college.” But, that was better than Washington County, with its 69 percent high school graduation rate and 42 percent “some college” rate. Bay County had a graduation rate of 68 percent and “some college” rate of 59 percent.
Davis also said Washington County needs to improve its “personal health education and responsibility.” He feels the problem is institutionalized in rural counties and there is little health departments can do. He said they can’t force people to live healthier, more responsible lives.
“We try to educate, but this is a democracy. I cannot force you to not eat a piece of fried chicken. If you want to go out back and smoke, that’s between you and your employer,” he said. “I can’t force you to not smoke, and I can’t force you to exercise.”
Area health rankings
Out of 67 Florida counties, here is how area counties fared in a newly released health study:
- Bay: 35
- Calhoun: 46
- Franklin: 33
- Gulf: 34
- Holmes: 52
- Jackson: 49
- Walton: 41
- Washington: 65