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Virginia Health Rankings Reveal Disparities Among Regions

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By Caitlin Barbieri, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The affluent suburbs of Northern Virginia are the healthiest communities in the state, and lower-income localities, especially in the southern and western parts of the commonwealth, have the most serious health problems, according to a recent study.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that for the third year in a row, Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington are the healthiest counties in Virginia. They share low rates of premature death and a high percentage of adults with education beyond high school.

But Petersburg, Emporia and Martinsville ranked lowest in the foundation’s eighth annual county health report. Those three localities all had high unemployment and high rates of child poverty – factors associated with poor health.

The rankings are based on health outcomes and health factors. Health outcomes include the length and quality of life; health factors include behaviors such as smoking, access to care, social and economic conditions and physical environment.

“A lot of it has to do with things we call social determinants of health,” said Bob Hicks, Virginia’s deputy commissioner for community health services. “Where there is high unemployment and where there are schools not performing and the kids aren't educated to a certain level, we see these trends continuing in poor health outcomes.”

Hicks and his team at the Virginia Department of Health use the statistics from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to start conversations about communities’ health needs and to work with residents to best utilize resources.

“We require each of the local health directors to be involved in doing a community health assessment,” Hicks said. “Resources are always limited so the assessment results in a ranking by the stakeholders [in the community] of what they would like to see addressed.”

In Petersburg, the community health assessments have led to efforts to reduce teen pregnancy. In 2011, the city’s teen pregnancy rate was 101 pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15-19. According to the most recent report, the rate has dropped to 87 pregnancies per 1,000 females in that age category.

However, not every locality is showing progress. In 2016, Hopewell was ranked 118th in Virginia. But in the most recent report, Hopewell dropped to 126th among the state’s 133 counties and cities. Among the factors: Thirty percent of Hopewell residents live in poverty, and more than half of the children there live in single-parent households.

“You’ll find those [inequities] all over the place,” said Chris Gordon, chief of staff for community and health services. “Even if you look at the high-ranking countries like Loudoun and Fairfax, you’re going to find disparities in equity.”

Seven percent of people living in Fairfax are in poverty. While that is a small percentage, more than 1 million people live in Fairfax – and so nearly 80,000 of them are living in poverty

Hicks said he hopes the data will lead to improvement in health across the state. “That is really the goal – to give people the opportunity to live in a healthy community.”

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