Sarasota County

Third - healthiest region - again

Sarasota Herald Tribune

Barbara Peters Smith / March 29, 2017

Once again Sarasota County is riding high among Florida counties in a national tally of health benefits and deficits that underscores the fact that where you live can determine whether you thrive.

For the third year in a row, the county ranks third in the state for “health outcomes” -- length and quality of life.  And it comes in second overall in “health factors” -- a complicated mix that includes factors we can and can’t control: lifestyle habits, medical care, regional socioeconomics and the environment.

Manatee and Charlotte counties also scored in the top third of 67 Florida locales, ranking 21st and 22nd, according to self-reported data collected and analyzed by researchers for the eighth annual nationwide report by the Robert Wood Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.  The numbers in each category are the latest available and may lag behind reality by several years, so basically the report provides a snapshot of the recent past. 

Through this lens, Sarasota County residents drink a little more than the state average, according to the County Health Rankings released today, and our dismal rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities is more than 21 percent higher than Florida as a whole.

On the bright side, Sarasota County is a clear leader in access to exercise opportunities, and also excels nationally in its low number of preventable hospital stays. That last measure might have something to do with a stellar supply of doctors and dentists -- at least for the 80 percent of county residents who have health insurance coverage.

We have also seen a drop in child poverty rates since 2012, from 22 to 18 percent.

Chuck Henry, health officer at the Department of Health in Sarasota County, sees factors that affect the well-being of local children as “issues at the base of the pyramid for long-term community health. All of those things might not seem like they’re linked to long-term health, but they are huge predictors.”  While health outcome scores are important, he said Tuesday, he believes the report’s health factors are more significant: “They predict where we’re going to be.”

Henry added that the high local rate of drunk-driving deaths is “marked in the data as something we need to understand and look into.” Other studies have suggested, he said, that excessive drinking may be linked to a large retiree population, where alcohol is considered an essential part of leisure activities.

Rather than focus on his county’s position in Florida, Henry appreciates the opportunity to draw comparisons with the report’s “U.S. benchmarks,” localities that perform in the top 10 percent nationwide. This region’s performance in preventable hospital stays, he said, shows that the community safety net is doing its job.

“We have great hospitals here,” Henry noted. “But the main thing is our network of primary care providers, all working to keep people out of the hospital.”

St. Johns and Collier counties outranked Sarasota in health outcomes, and the top of the list was dominated by Florida’s coastal and urban counties. In many ways, these numbers underscore stubborn disparities in wealth and education: Rural parts of the state, as well as the nation, have been hit hardest by an increase in premature death rates between the ages of 15 and 44 -- a reflection of the rise in opioid addictions.

“The drug overdose epidemic is the leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year-olds and is a clear driver of this trend,” said a statement on the report, singling out the problem as a nationwide health concern. “Drug deaths are also accelerating among 15- to 24 year-olds, but nearly three times as many people in this age group die by homicide, suicide or in motor vehicle crashes.”

In the three-county area, Manatee has the highest number of premature deaths, 12 percent above the state average. All of SW Florida has a lower percentage of cigarette smokers than Florida as a whole. Manatee and Charlotte are right at the state level for adult obesity, while Sarasota is four percentage points lower. The region matches the state average for uninsured residents -- at 20 percent, well above the national benchmark of 8 percent, mostly due to Florida’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.