An analysis comparing health statistics for Georgia counties shows a wide gap between rural and urban/suburban areas in the state.
The top seven counties in the state in the new health rankings — Fayette, Forsyth, Oconee, Cherokee, Gwinnett, Cobb and Columbia –- are all in large metropolitan areas in the northern or north-central part of the state.
The bottom 10 counties are in rural South or Middle Georgia, according to the rankings, compiled for each state by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and released last week. Here’s a link to the Georgia breakdown.
Rural experts said this Georgia health disparity isn’t surprising, given those areas’ high poverty rates and medical access problems.
The 2012 rankings provide statistics in four categories: health behavior, clinical care, physical environment, and social and economic factors, which include the percentage of children in poverty, unemployment and education rates.
Southern states in general have higher rates of births to teenage mothers, sexually transmitted infections and children in poverty, the study found.
The lowest-ranked county in Georgia is Talbot, in the west-central part of the state. Beverly Townsend, a public health district director whose area includes Talbot, told GPB News that the county lacks important resources that would improve people’s health.
“Unfortunately, in that small county, for our local health department, we have one nurse,” Townsend said. “And they don’t have a supermarket there anymore. That actually closed.”
Fifty percent of the restaurants in Talbot County serve fast food, which is a new measure in the study. Georgia’s average of fast food places is 50 percent, exceeding a national benchmark of 25 percent.
The highest-ranked county is again Fayette, in the southern suburbs of Atlanta. But even Fayette also has some factors that are worse than the national benchmarks, such as its percentage of low-birthweight babies, adult smoking, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Jimmy Lewis, CEO of Hometown Health, an organization of rural hospitals in the state, noted Monday that rural populations are often poorer than their urban counterparts. Thus many people are forced to ‘‘put their money into groceries rather than [physician] office visits,’’ he said.
Many small rural hospitals no longer deliver babies, which leads to less prenatal care –- and higher infant mortality, Lewis added.
Matt Caseman, executive director of the Georgia Rural Health Association, noted that many counties lack an adequate number of physicians. A high percentage of rural residents have no insurance, Caseman added.
This year’s state budget has put some new money into rural health care, Caseman noted. He pointed to 400 new medical residency slots for doctors and increased funding for federally qualified health centers.
Lewis and Caseman each noted that advances in telemedicine are helping rural residents.
Rural health problems “will take time to resolve,’’ Caseman said.
A Macon Telegraph article reported how health is connected to income and education in Middle Georgia counties.
Residents of Bibb, Twiggs and Wilkinson counties are among the sickest in the state, the newspaper reported. But people who live in relatively well-off parts of the region, including Houston, Jones and Monroe counties, are in much better health.
Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia demographer, told the Telegraph that disparities in health often are related to income, education and race, which traditionally tend to be tied together in the state.
“The whole thing is based on the demographics of the population, and so some of the metropolitan counties around Macon with higher educational levels would, of course, rank better than the counties with large poverty-stricken populations,” Bachtel said. “If they’re white, affluent, college-trained, have income, they have insurance and do more preventative care.’’
Hall County, a fast-growing area just to the northeast of metropolitan Atlanta, ranked ninth-best among counties, though its 26 percent of residents without insurance exceeds the state average of 21 percent, the Gainesville Times reported.
“If we’re going to have an overall healthy community, people need to have access,” Cheryl Christian, executive director of a free clinic in Gainesville, told the Times.