Experts say it is not unusual to find healthier suburban areas next door to sicklier urban areas, and local health advocates say the rankings will help spur efforts to do more to turn health habits around.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute compiled health rankings on nearly every one of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. from available public health data, looking at a wide range of measures, from access to healthy foods to smoking rates and premature deaths.
As in the Augusta area, there often was a broad range even within a region of the state, said Dr. Patrick Remington, director of the County Health project and associate dean for public health at the university's School of Medicine and Public Health.
"We see that counties with urban or inner-city communities are often the least healthy," he said. "These urban counties have higher rates of teen pregnancy, more people without health insurance, children living in poverty, and less access to healthy foods. On the other hand, suburban counties, often adjacent to these urban centers, are some of the healthiest counties." They often have less smoking, fewer uninsured and greater access to health care.
Columbia County, for instance has a teen birth rate that is 27 per 1,000. half the state average of 55 per 1,000, while Richmond County's is 72 per 1,000 and Burke County's is 84 per 1,000. Columbia County reports that 80 percent of its population has ready access to heathy foods in nearby grocery stores or markets, while only 56 percent do in Richmond County and only 40 percent in Burke County, well below the state average of 65 percent.
The first county health rankings came out last year but many in public health were distracted by the H1N1 influenza pandemic, said Dr. Ketty Gonzalez, East Central Health District director.
"This year we don't have that pressure," she said. "My intention is to work with the boards of health, to share this information, to see if there is a way that we can involve the community in some dialogue about what can be done."
This will likely need to be done differently in each county, Gonzalez said, "because what is important for Richmond County may be totally different from Burke County. And if you do it from the (health) district level, you're not doing justice to the community. The whole concept of this is to involve the community so the community owns an action plan."
She could see something similar to the way Augusta-area health care providers came together a few years ago to address an alarming number of child deaths from asthma, a rate that has since turned around. The point is to pick a couple of areas to focus on and act, Gonzalez said.
"We get bombarded with data but we're not using the data," she said. "We're not turning to information and learning the story behind the numbers and trying to come up with approaches or strategies to make a difference."
Healthy Augusta Inc., a fairly new group, is using a walk on May 21 as its kickoff event with the idea of getting families and groups to take up walking as a way to get healthier, Executive Director Amanda McDougald said.
"Obviously people need to eat better and they just need to get moving more than they do," she said. "Just people getting outside and making the choice to turn off the TV and get moving."