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Concerns raised by health report

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By ZACK OWENSBYThe Wilson Post

Wilson Countians generally are healthier and live longer than the average Tennessean, according to a new report on county-by-county health statistics, but there are still some concerns about the environment we live in, the habits we practice and the air we breathe.

Wilson ranked sixth in the state in the category of health outcomes, which measures the rate of people dying before age 75, the percentage of people who report being in fair or poor health, the number of days people report being in poor physical health and in poor mental health and the rate of low-birthweight infants.

“Wilson County did really well overall,” said Dr. Lori MacDonald, regional health officer of the Mid-Cumberland Region, the 12-county group made up of Wilson and other surrounding counties.

According to the report compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Wilson residents live longer on average than most Tennesseans, a large indicator of overall health, ranking in the top five statewide.Interestingly, although people here live longer, the report states that Wilson Countians reported being in poorer physical and mental health than residents of other counties.

Dr. Bernie Sy, internist and pediatrician with Family Medical Associates in Lebanon, credits the contrast to the quality of care provided by local physicians.

It would make sense, Sy said, that the negative habits that are more common in the South, such as poor eating habits, smoking, sedentary lifestyles, etc., creating a poorer quality of life for many Wilson County residents.

When people are reporting being in poor health more frequently, Sy thinks it “relates directly to our culture here in a more rural setting of the South,” he said. “But when you consider the longevity of life here, I think at least part of it is a direct influence of the quality of care they receive.

“There is a large amount of nursing homes here, for example,” he added. “The physicians and staff that work with them are taking care of all of their needs. Some of them might take 14 medications, or they might have diabetes or might have severe dementia, so their quality of life is low.”

“Social and economic factors” were also a bright spot for Wilson, which was listed as second statewide with regard to high school graduation rates, college degrees, unemployment, children in poverty, income inequality, inadequate social support, single-parent homes and violent crime rate.

“Wilson County obviously has a lot of high school and college educated residents, unemployment and violent crime are low. It is sign that there is a lot going well in Wilson County,” MacDonald said.

Physical environment not conducive to health

Another real concern for residents lies in the “physical environment” category in which Wilson ranked 70 out of 95 counties.

Factors that hurt the local rating were “air pollution-ozone days” of which Wilson had 10 listed, almost twice as many as Davidson County, while the statewide average is two, and “access to healthy foods” category listing Wilson as 38 percent, while the top counties statewide were reported at more than 80 percent. The number reflects the percent of zip codes within a county that have a health food market or farmers’ market.

“The ‘physical environment’ category is a bit of a concern for Wilson County,” MacDonald said. “It factors in the prominence of things like fast-food restaurants and liquor stores, which Wilson County has a lot of.

“It is connected to the whole eating thing, and local health councils can emphasize the eating concerns, pushing local Tennessee products and eating more fruits and vegetables,” MacDonald said.

Number of smokers here a concern for providers

Other surprising statistics included in the report state that Wilson County has more smokers than average, more preventable hospital stays and less than half the primary care providers of other counties.

“We do have a lot of smokers in Wilson County,” Sy said. “Smoking is quite rampant here. We (Wilson County’s primary care providers) do all we can to encourage them to quit, and we have a lot of strategies to help them quit, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the patients.”

Fewer doctors here per capita

It may not be just your imagination that your doctor’s office is more crowded than usual. Theoretically, they are treating three times the patients of a doctor in Davidson or Williamson.

“Primary care provider rate” in Wilson was listed as 60 per 100,000, while the state is listed as 121 per 100,000 as the average. Davidson and Williamson Counties each offer more than 180 primary care providers per 100,000 residents.

MacDonald said that is a common phenomenon across the state, noting “it is harder to practice in more rural counties, considering specialists and the fact that there is an urban setting nearby.”

Sy doesn’t think he sees more than the average physician. It may relate back to the fact that people here don’t see their doctor as often as they should.

“When new doctors get out of residency, many of them are choosing to join larger practices so they can spread the patient load out more among the other physicians, so they can better balance their workload with lifestyle, which are generally more common in urban areas. They might want to have children, a family, be well-rested and not overworked. That is more difficult in a rural area.”

Statewide facts stir optimism

Tennessee as a whole moved up four spots from last year to 44th position nationwide.

Several other sub-categories improved across the state, including childhood immunizations, rising from 22nd place last year to fourth this year. In total, 83 percent of children between 19 and 35 months old are fully vaccinated, a fact MacDonald was particularly proud about.

Adult smokers dropped from 24 to 23 percent, high school students who smoke dropped 5 percent and diabetes cases dropped by almost 2 percent.

And public health departments across the state saw more than 2 million patients last year, making it the largest single health provider in the state.

Staff Writer Zack Owensby may be contacted at

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