In the donut hole

Are we the hole in the healthy community donut?

It’s a question that Dr. John Lanza and his staff are looking at as they analyze data from the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that ranks counties in terms of health. Explore the data here.

“The best county in our state is St. Johns County and St. Augustine,” Lanza says. “Many of the people who live there, work in Duval County and Jacksonville. In St. Johns County, they don’t have the large urban area that Jacksonville has.”

They also are absent the large pocket of poverty that often comes with that large urban area.

It is the same kind of symbiotic relationship that Lanza sees between Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

Escambia County is 59th healthiest out of 67 counties. Our bedroom community, Santa Rosa County, ranks eighth.

But Lanza urges care in reading the data. Escambia County ranks well in terms of residents who have a long commute — only 23 percent.

And that’s good news given what we know about the negative impacts sitting still — be it at the desk or behind the wheel — for long periods of time has on our health.

Our neighbors in Santa Rosa, 40 percent of them have a long commute and drive alone.

In terms of access to health care, residents of Escambia County are far better off when it comes to being able to see a dentist or to get mental health care based on the numbers.

But, Lanza notes, it’s likely that folks in Santa Rosa County access those things in Escambia County.

Then comes the Escambia squeeze.

The No. 2 county for health outcomes in Alabama is Baldwin County, the bedroom county nestled between Mobile and Pensacola.

Escambia County, Ala., our neighbor to the north, ranks 50th out of 67 counties in Alabama.

With communities to the east and west with better health outcomes, it is crucial that we take the health and wellness of our community as seriously as we take the availability of shovel-ready economic development sites.

That is an investment that is especially important to make in our children.

Because, friends, the data also show that for many of children, ours is a hard place to call home.

According to the County Health Rankings:

— 30 percent of children in Escambia County live in poverty.

— 10.4 percent of our infants are born at low birth weight, which puts them at greater risk for a host of health and developmental problems.

— 62 percent of high school students graduate, according to the data the study uses. It bases high school graduation rate on the percentage of the ninth-graders who graduate from high school in four years.

— 43 percent of children live in single-parent households.

— 30.6 percent of our middle and high school students are overweight or obese, according to Florida Department of Health data.

Even so, Lanza, a pediatrician by trade, believes our best chance for cultural change lies with children.

“I think that is our best hope, actually,” he says. “Public health works in trying to prevent health factors that lead to those negative health outcomes.

“The younger we can stop a child from smoking, from drinking, from being overweight or obese, the more we can do with pregnancy and STD prevention” the better off our community will be in the long run, he says.

“We have to reinforce the fact with our families that a high school diploma is expected, as is the opportunity for a job that has health benefits,” Lanza says. “We need to expect these things to happen. If we don’t, then it’s never going to happen.”

If we don’t expect those things, the donut hole we are in between Baldwin County, Ala., and Santa Rosa County, Fla., will never shrink.

It may even grow.

That won’t be good for recruiting new and emerging businesses, especially ones that pay a good wage and offer healthcare.

Without those varied and robust job opportunities, young people with the talent and ability will seek their fortunes elsewhere.

And the options for those who remain will be limited.

That’s not a hole any of us want to be stuck in.

Originally published March 31, 2015.