LUMBERTON — Just ahead of National Public Health Week, Robeson County has found itself in a familiar spot — third to last among North Carolina counties in overall health.
Robesonians weigh more, smoke more, die younger, and exercise less when compared with the rest of the state, according to a recently released report. But there was good news too: County residents drink less alcohol, are less prone to alcohol-related driving deaths and are on par with the state’s high school graduation rate.
It’s not the first time Robeson has ranked low in the County Health Rankings, which is compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute using data from more than 20 national sources. Robeson ranked 97th in 2013, 99th in 2012 and 98th in 2011.
Cumberland County was ranked 73rd, Scotland 98th, Bladen 91st, Hoke 36th and Columbus last. Wake, Union, Orange and Mecklenburg counties ranked among the healthiest in the state.
“If we use this the same way as we do tests, only the top 30 are passing. The other 70 are failing. An ‘F’ is an ‘F’ whether it’s 69 or one,” said Bill Smith, the director of Robeson County’s Health Department. “Somebody has got to be No. 1, somebody else has got to be 100. If you improve, somebody else has got to slip backwards.”
Twenty-six percent of Robeson County adults over the age of 20 smoke cigarettes every day or most days, compared with 20 percent statewide. Forty-one percent are obese, the highest rate in the state. According to the 2013 Obesity Data Reference Guide, 40 percent of the county’s children are overweight.
For every 100,000 people, 854 cases of chlamydia were reported — 286 more than the statewide rate.
Thirty-seven percent of adults in the county say they don’t participate in any “leisure-time physical activity.” Although that percentage has decreased slightly, it’s the highest in the state.
Despite the county’s sizable health care industry and 27 parks, just 22 percent of residents have adequate access to exercise opportunities, meaning they live within a half-mile of a park or within one mile of a recreational facility for urban residents and three miles for rural residents. Statewide, 65 percent have adequate access.
“Really, what you want to do on these is compare yourself to yourself … although your ranking didn’t improve, if your numbers are improving, you’re heading in the right direction,” Smith said, noting there isn’t much of real-world difference from one spot on the list to another.
Solely looking at quality of life, the county came in 87th.
About one quarter of Robeson County residents said their quality of life is fair or poor as opposed to good, very good or excellent. Statewide, 18 percent gave that response.
Robeson County residents took fewer mental and physical health days in the past 30 days than those in Columbus, but more than the statewide average.
According to the report, measuring quality of life “helps characterize the burden of disabilities and chronic diseases in a population.”
Robeson fared worse when it came to premature death — the number years of potential life lost before age 75 per 100,000 people. For example, if someone dies at age 30, that would add 45 years to the total. According to the report, for every 100,000 Robesonians, 11,614 years were lost. Statewide, an average of 7,480 years were lost — about two-thirds of Robeson’s measure.
Social and economic factors likely contribute to low rank in other areas.
“The worst 12 counties are Tier 1 counties, they’re the poorest counties, and the top five counties are the wealthiest. The health and economics are joined at the hip. You’re not going to have a healthy environment in a poor area,” Smith said.
Forty-eight percent of children under 18 are living below the poverty line, compared with 26 percent statewide, and 74 percent of Robeson County children qualify for free school lunches.
The median income in Robeson County is $29,965, the report said, $15,230 lower than the state median. A quarter of Robesonians said they had to forgo visiting a doctor in last year because of the cost.
“If you don’t feel good and you can’t pay a doctor or fill the prescription, why go?” Smith said. “You just go to the emergency room when it gets really bad.”
Smith said residents shouldn’t worry about the rankings, but should focus on their individual health.. He cited smoking as an example.
“If we’re sitting there with double what Wake County is, then you have double the number of people that don’t feel healthy, double the disease, double the number that are missing work, double the medical expenses,” he said.
Robeson’s best performances came in the category of physical environment, where it placed 36th in the state. According to the report, the county is on par with the state when it comes to air pollution and severe housing issues.
Smith said the health department is working to keep teen pregnancy rates down, make public housing smoke-free and get healthier foods into convenience stores.
“If these programs work, you’ll never know. So we take this week to tell people [the Health Department is] more than septic tanks and a shot,” he said.