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Originally published: 2014-03-27 17:49:44
Last modified: 2014-03-27 17:51:43

Watauga is second healthiest North Carolina county

by Anna Oakes

Watauga County ranks second among North Carolina's 100 counties in an annual list of health rankings compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The organizations publish the rankings each year to help community leaders identify challenges and take action in a variety of ways to improve residents' health.

"That is a wonderful designation to be second in the state," said Richard Sparks, CEO of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.

Watauga improved over its 2013 ranking, edging out Orange County for the second place position behind Wake County in overall health outcomes, which factors in figures on length of life, percentage of adults in poor or fair health and percentage of babies born with low weights, among other factors.

The county also ranked fifth in terms of health factors, which include access to medical care; rates of health behaviors such as smoking and obesity; social and economic factors such as education levels, unemployment and children in poverty; and aspects of the physical environment.

Watauga County's rate of premature death is the fourth lowest in the state. The county ranked second statewide for quality of life criteria, with 13 percent of residents designated as being in poor or fair health and 5.9 percent of babies with a low birth weight. The state averages for those measures are 18 and 9.1 percent, respectively.

Sixteen percent of Watauga adults are smokers, lower than the N.C. average of 20 percent. The obesity rate, at 28 percent, was on par with the state figure of 29 percent. About 22 percent of county residents are physically inactive, while 94 percent have access to exercise opportunities.

Margins of error for these behavior measures ranged from 13 to 33 percent, however.

Approximately 15 percent of Watauga residents drink excessively -- higher than the state rate of 13 percent -- but alcohol-impaired driving deaths were lower in the county (23 percent) than the rest of the state (33 percent).

The rate of chlamydia infections in Watauga is 179 per 100,000 people, which is lower than the N.C. rate of 568 per 100,000. The teen birth rate was 10 per 1,000 females, again lower than the state rate of 44 per 1,000.

Watauga ranked 15th in the state for access to clinical care, with 20 percent of residents who are uninsured, a ratio of one primary care doctor per 1,222 residents, one dentist per 1,984 residents and one mental health provider per 433 residents.

The county ranked fifth in the state for social and economic factors, including rates for high school graduation and college degrees, unemployment, child poverty, single-parent households and violent crime.

The county ranked 92nd for its physical environment, however, with a higher average daily measure of air pollution (13 micrograms per cubic meter) than the state (12.3); 27 percent of households with problems such as high costs, overcrowding or lack of kitchen or plumbing facilities; and 75 percent of residents who drive alone to work.

Again, margins of error for some of these criteria were high.

Data sources from which the county health rankings were derived include the National Center for Health Statistics; Centers for Disease Control; U.S. Census Bureau; Health Resources & Services Administration; National Center for Education Statistics; American Community Survey; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Environmental Protection Agency; and U.S. Department of Agriculture; Medicare.

For more information, visit http://www.countyhealthrankings.org.