Johnston County has comparatively low rates of poor health and premature death, ranking in the top third of counties statewide. But Johnston needs to improve access to health care and encourage healthier habits for its residents.
Those are conclusions drawn from 2014 county health rankings and the 2013 State of the County Health Report from the Johnston County Public Health Department. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute compiled the rankings. The State of the County Health Report is from the Johnston County Public Health Department.
The health report, published yearly to identify health issues and summarize progress, draws data from a number of sources, including the Census, the Centers for Disease Control and the N.C. State Center for Health.
Based on that data, the report says the county’s greatest health challenges are obesity, diabetes, access to health care, cancer, heart disease and injury prevention.
Causes of death
Heart disease, cancer and teen motor-vehicle accidents were the leading causes of death in Johnston County in 2011, the latest year for which complete numbers are available.
That year, the county’s rates for auto accidents and heart disease surpassed the statewide averages, while deaths from cancer were lower. Unhealthy habits, including smoking, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, drinking and substance abuse, were big contributors to heart disease and cancer deaths, the county health report said.
Also in 2011, Johnston saw a decline in Type II diabetes. That year, doctors diagnosed 6.4 percent of Johnston residents with diabetes. The year before, the diagnosis was 13.5 percent. But despite the drop from one to the year, diabetes remains the seventh leading cause of death in the county.
Johnston has worked hard to reduce the number of teens who die in traffic accidents. In 2010, it launched StreetSafe, a program that requires anyone under 21 who receives a traffic violation to attend a safety seminar. A separate program is Johnston County Teen Drivers, where teens learn about safe driving from their peers. In 2013, just one Johnston teen died in a highway accident.
Access to care
This year, Johnston ranked 79th out of 100 counties for access to clinical care. It was 77th in 2013 and 67th in 2012.
But the county is not necessarily worse off today than it was two years ago, said Dr. Marilyn Pearson, director of Johnston’s Public Health Department. This year’s rankings include new factors that can make it harder to get to a doctor. Those factors include time spent commuting to and from work.
“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” she said.
Still, the biggest barrier to access is the number of doctors. Johnston has one primary-care physician for every 3,196 residents, or more than double the state ratio. Johnston has one mental-health professional for every 28,279 residents, or nearly nine times the state ratio.
Those ratios do not take into account people who live in Johnston but see a doctor out of county, Pearson.
The good news in the latest health stats is that the percentage of Johnstonians 64 and younger without health insurance declined to 17 percent in 2013 from 20 percent in 2012. The 2011 percentage was 14.
Pearson said she expects the percentage of Johnston residents without health insurance to decline because of the Affordable Care Act. A full-service hospital in Clayton should help too, she said. Pearson thinks population growth in a down economy caused the surge in 2012.
Unfortunately, Johnston residents might need their health insurance. The county ranks 76th statewide in health behaviors. In short, that means too many Johnstonians smoke and drink, while too few exercise and watch what they eat.
In 2011, 72 percent of Johnston adults were overweight, compared to 65 percent statewide. However, physical activity in Johnston increased from 2010 to 2011 by more than 7 percent.
Pearson said one of the health department’s goal is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. In 2012, the department received a grant to support farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs. It has also helped Archer Lodge with a parks plan and supported a community garden in Clayton, she said.
“The goal is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” Pearson said.