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Lee County health ranking 23rd in state

By Staff | Apr 2, 2011

A slight decrease in adult smoking, the motor vehicle crash death rate and teen birth rate were some of the contributing factors that ranked Lee County 23rd out of Florida’s 67 counties for being the healthiest community, according to an annual County Health Ranking report released this week.
Diane Holm, spokesperson for the Lee County Health Department, said Lee County was ranked 21st last year. She said the rankings are based on criteria that determines what creates health for an individual in a community.
How much money a community has, access to fresh, healthy food, opportunities to be physically active and mortality and morbidity are some of the factors the survey studied for the overall health of a community.
Holm said how much money the community has determines how many health care providers are available for residents.
“If residents don’t have money to pay for health care services, business providers can’t sustain a business there,” she said.
Economics also plays a part in the quantity of fresh and healthy food that is available for a community, Holm said, because if they can support those businesses they will stay, but if they cannot support them they go away.
A mini study was done for three ZIP codes in Lee County where health was significantly lower due to the community not having access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Holm said those three ZIP codes had more locations where they could go to fast food stores, along with purchasing convenience store food, rather than purchasing healthy food items. Their mini study also showed that these ZIP codes had fewer access to medical providers.
She said although they would like to have a better ranking than 23, they do not consider it to be a bad ranking.
“We have been working on this not knowing there was a county ranking,” Holm said. “We knew the health of the community was suffering greatly, especially in certain ZIP codes where they were most impoverish.”
The amount of opportunities to be physically active also contributes to the health of the community. Holm said the number of parks that are open to the public, roadways, bicycle lanes, sidewalks, safe access points for people to become physically active and gyms are all contributing factors to maintaining a healthy community.
Sally Jackson, Lee Memorial Health System director of community projects, said the Fit Friendly Southwest Florida campaign was implemented in April 2008 after the initial partnership began with the American Heart Association Start Walking Campaign. She said they were extremely successful in engaging businesses, social services, community organizations, parks and recreation, government and churches throughout Lee County for the campaign.
The purpose of Fit Friendly Southwest Florida program, Jackson said is to create and sustain a community culture of healthier lifestyle.
“We all can do more to stay fit and have life-long health … a very important part of what each of us owe to ourselves,” she said.
The theme of the campaign is to inspire change, along with making it a part of the community’s culture.
Since the campaign began, Jackson said 30 new walking paths have been created in Lee County by the city of Cape Coral, Lee County Park District and the city of Fort Myers.
“That has been a very successful part of the effort,” she said.
Jackson said the campaign has also included a revamping of county planning for transportation and development. Previously she said the county had not planned for the health needs of the community, which now has changed.
The planning now includes health as one of the factors as what will be included in the formal planning process.
“We are very pleased in seeing that,” Jackson said. “That is a huge change.”
She said the county is looking at ways to go back into the old communities and start retrofitting by implementing sidewalks and bike paths.
The county health ranking also takes mortality and morbidity into account when determining the healthiest communities. Holm said it is measured by how many deaths occur to people in the community who are under the average full life span of 75 years old. She said this factor addresses the frequency in which people receive hospital care for an illness or injury that could have been prevented.
“If people can’t afford standard medical care they don’t go to the doctor until they are in full distress,” Holm said.
She said this year the county ranking changed the way they looked at socioeconomic factors by looking at individuals who attend some college during 2011, instead of individuals obtaining college degrees the year before.
“Our numbers went way up this year under some college in comparison from last year,” she said.
Unemployment was another factor on which the study focused.
Holm said unemployment went way up because of the time frame from which the data was collected. She said the 2011 data for unemployment ranged mostly from 2003-2009 with some information as old as 2001.
“It reflected the recession figures,” Holm said.
“The reality is that our anticipation is that we have several lower years of ranking before we can realistically expect to come out of this and move higher in the ranking category,” she said, “because the data sets that are available are way behind what we are living.”
Individuals can improve the health of the community by choosing a healthier lifestyle for themselves, which starts by having a healthier attitude towards life.
A healthier lifestyle, she said, can be accomplished by avoiding the known factors that contribute to obesity and chronic disease, along with increasing the things that are known to make a person healthier.
“It’s about making a different set of choices,” Holm said.