Stephanie Johnson, an associate researcher with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, will be speaking from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday at the Augusta Public Library. Her visit is sponsored by the Georgia Regents University Institute of Public and Preventive Health and Healthy Augusta. Johnson’s institute compiles the yearly County Health Rankings and Roadmaps and Richmond County did not fare well this year, ranking 135th in Georgia in health outcomes and even worse in particular areas, such as premature death.
But those statistics are “a starting point” for finding ways to improve health, she said.
“Where your county ranks is the starting point, it’s not the endpoint,” Johnson said. “(The ranking) is really an opportunity for communities to explore data and look for opportunities to then take action and look at improving the culture of health in their local community.”
Augusta has high rates of poor health behaviors, such as smoking, obesity and sexually transmitted infections, with nearly double the Georgia average for those infections. But many of those behaviors can also be influenced by social and economic factors, Johnson said.
“Are people who are living in poverty, do they have access to healthy foods?” she said. “Do they have access to places where they can be physically active? Are they living in food deserts? The inter-relatedness of all of those health factors really contribute to how long and how well people live.”
According to an Augusta Chronicle analysis last year, much of the central part of the city is not only a “food desert,” where communities lack a grocery store and access to healthy foods, but there are also areas that are a “food swamp” where stores selling healthy food are vastly outnumbered by fast food and stores selling unhealthy choices.
Part of Johnson’s role will be to do some “community coaching” to help groups working on the problems focus on what policies or programs might aid that effort, she said. Healthy Augusta has said one of its key goals is getting the Augusta Commission to pass a tougher smoking ordinance and that kind of policy change can have a big overall impact on health, Johnson said.
“One of the things we encourage communities to do is look for opportunities to influence policy and the tobacco use issue is a really good example of that because we know that tobacco use is connected to a variety of poor health outcomes,” she said.