Kent County was ranked fourth of the five Rhode Island counties for health factors and outcomes by the “County Health Ranking and Roadmaps.” The annual study, done in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, rates states’ counties on health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and the physical environment. It also examines mortality, or length of life, and morbidity, or quality of life.
In the past two years, Kent County, which includes the municipalities of Warwick, West Warwick, Coventry and East and West Greenwich, has ranked fourth overall, but earned the fifth and last slot in some subcategories. This year, the county held its overall position but managed to creep out of the bottom of the barrel of all but one category: health behaviors.
The health behaviors category includes things like adult smoking and obesity, teen birth rates and motor vehicle-related deaths.
Dr. Patricia Nolan, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, said lumping counties together, especially in Rhode Island, isn’t always the best way to measure community health.
“Most people don’t know what county they live in,” she said with a smile.
She said although some might be surprised to see Kent in the second-to-last slot, it makes sense when statewide urbanization patterns are taken into consideration.
“[Kent] is the second most urbanized county,” she said, putting it behind Providence County in urbanization but ahead of the county in the study. Bristol County ranked first in both health outcomes and factors.
“This is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity,” she said.
Nolan said the county has been putting their focus on promoting exercise, wellness, forming community partnerships and ensuring youth education and activities.
Kent’s clinical care score, which examines disease screening and prevention, bumped up from 5th in 2011 to 4th this year. Dr. Robert Marshall, development director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, believes that increased access to programs accounted for the change.
More people, he said, took advantage of things like mobile blood donations, Gloria Gemma cancer screening, the SMILE Program, Project Undercover and had access to healthier foods at farmers’ markets.
“There are lots of things going on in this community,” he said.
For the past three years, Kent has taken top honors in the physical environment category, which falls under the larger umbrella of “health outcomes.” According to the study, Kent County has fewer air pollution and ozone days and increased access to recreational areas and healthy foods. Kent County also has relatively few fast food restaurants.
Marshall said there are already a lot of ways in which people can take advantage of Kent’s natural resources, but he hopes to expand upon and promote those. He outlined a possible plan for a bike path for kids to take to and from their schools, as well as additional walking trails.
At a breakfast Wednesday morning at the Aspray Boathouse, representatives from businesses and health organizations throughout the county gathered to discuss the data, and how to use Kent’s assets to offset the county’s flaws.
Mayor Scott Avedisian said he was “rather depressed” about last year’s numbers but is growing optimistic about the positive changes Kent County is beginning to make.
“It’s informative and encouraging,” said Marshall. “It’s the thing that could make Kent County a better place to live, work and play.”
Those at the breakfast were given the opportunity to discuss what measures would best serve to continue Kent’s progress toward the number one spot. Motivating citizens to take advantage of programs already in place was discussed, but those present decided one thing came before motivation – education.
Patty St. Amant, director of the Warwick Department of Human Services, said educating children early is the best approach.
“Early intervention is the only way to go,” she said.
Mayor Scott Avedisian agreed, saying the only way he got adults to understand the new recycling program was by educating their children about it in school.
Pat Seltzer, the Warwick community wellness nurse, said intercommunication between communities was an important step in assuring all of the counties’ residents had access to resources and programs.
Marshall called it the “zoom in, zoom out” method, which he said examines both the details and the bigger picture. It’s important, he said, not to focus solely on citywide issues, but to think more about the overall community of Rhode Island.
All of the Kent County cities, except West Greenwich, were represented at yesterday’s breakfast. Those who attended plan to stay in contact to further develop plans to make Kent County healthier.