Rock County ranks low in health

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staff, Gazette
Friday, March 22, 2013

— Rock County is trying to improve residents' health with programs designed to curb childhood obesity, give people more opportunities to be physically active and reduce exposure to secondhand smoke.

But according to Rock County Health Officer Karen Cain, many of the problems here are stubborn ones. In some cases, they're tied to patterns of poverty and a dangerous culture of drinking, she said.

So despite the county health department's best efforts, the health of county residents was once again ranked in the bottom quarter of Wisconsin counties, according to a study released this week.

Rock County ranked 62nd out of 72 counties. Walworth County fared better at 34th.

Rock County has consistently been ranked close to the bottom of state counties in the annual study from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

As the county works to identify and address its public health needs, Cain said progress could be slow.

"It's not something that's going to get fixed overnight," she said. "There are so many different aspects of health that it takes a whole community to work on the issue."

The study includes data on a range of public health issues in counties across the state and country—factors like obesity, excessive drinking, violent crime and access to healthy food.

Its rankings are based on rates of low birth-weight infants, how many people say they are in fair or poor health, how many days respondents say they are in poor physical or mental health, and premature deaths.

Ozaukee, Kewaunee and St. Croix were named the state's three healthiest counties; Marquette, Milwaukee and Menominee were the least healthy.

Rock County's rates of adult smoking, obesity, sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy—all of which outpace those of Wisconsin as a whole—were of particular concern to Cain.

The county identified similar problems in a health needs assessment conducted last year, she said, and has been trying to address them. One way officials have done that is through a $450,000 grant received last fall from Transform Wisconsin that aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles for young people, Cain said.

While Rock County has tried to reduce rates of smoking and heavy drinking as well, she said those problems are particularly tough to confront.

"Lots of people are aware of the problem," Cain said. "But smoking and excessive alcohol use just tends to be part of our culture. It just seems like it's an acceptable thing to drink, and to smoke."

According to the study, 26 percent of Rock County residents engage in excessive drinking, while 24 percent of the state does, as a whole.

The study's definition of excessive drinking includes binge drinking—consuming more than four drinks on one occasion for women, or more than five drinks for men—and heavy drinking—a woman having more than one drink every day, or a man having more than two.

In Walworth County, where the excessive drinking rate was 21 percent, health officer Janis Ellefsen also identified that as a difficult problem to solve.

"Changing culture is really slow," she said.

Walworth County's issues include access to affordable health care, she said, especially noting issues with of dental care.

There are more than 2,500 Walworth County residents for every primary care physician, and nearly the same ratio for dentists, according to the study. There are half as many residents per physician statewide compared to Walworth County, results show, and almost 1,000 fewer residents per dentist.

To address those gaps, Ellefsen said, the county recently opened its first free clinic. In addition, Mercy Health System is opening a facility in Elkhorn and expanding its Delavan location.

The area is "moving in the right direction," Ellefsen said, and the study seems to reflect that.

Two years ago the study ranked Walworth County 50th in the state.

Last updated: 7:54 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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