Northwest Arkansas counties among healthiest in the state, but gaps exist

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 616 views 

There is roughly a 10-year difference in life expectancy between residents of Benton County in and Phillips County in eastern Arkansas’ Delta region, according to the 2017 County Health Rankings provided by the University of Wisconsin and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The two counties are the top and bottom ranking counties for health outcomes.

Social and economic factors comprise 40% of a consumers’ health, while healthcare is responsible for just 20%. Personal behaviors such as smoking or drug use make up 30% and environmental elements such as air and water quality the final 10%, said Dr. Linda McGhee, a physician at University of Arkansas Medical Sciences in Fayetteville and a member of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission.

Your zip code can almost predict your life expectancy because where people live has the biggest impact on overall health, McGhee said during a Friday evening address to a small group of health advocates at the AMHC forum in Springdale.

Benton County premature deaths numbered about 6,000 a year compared to 9,200 statewide. Diabetes prevalence is 10%, compared to 12% statewide. With 101 HIV cases, the incidence rate is half that of the state level, according to the report.

Health factors where Benton County has better statistics include:
• Adult smoking rate of 16%, compared to 25% statewide;
• Adult obesity rate of 30%, compared to 34% statewide;
• Physical inactivity at 25%, compared to 31% statewide;
• Access to exercise opportunities at 83%, compared to 61% elsewhere in the state; and
• Mammography screening 64%, compared to 58% statewide.

Health Factors where Benton County needs work include, uninsured Adults 18%, compared 17% statewide, and excessive drinking 16%, compared to 15% statewide.

McGhee said the positive health outcomes in Benton County are directly related to its vibrant economy and higher median household income of $60,300, which is 43% higher than the state median of $42,000. Still 6% of the county’s children don’t have health insurance and healthcare costs total $9,231 per household annually.

Washington County ranks No. 3 in the state for health outcomes and second for life expectancy. There are 6,900 premature deaths annually, which is 900 more than Benton County, but considerably less than 9,200 statewide. Diabetes prevalence is 9%, but that could be higher given the 35% rates among the Marshallese population in Springdale, according to Dr. Sheldon Riklon, family physician at Community Clinic in Springdale and UAMS in Fayetteville.

Riklon told Talk Business & Politics the rate of diabetes in the Marshallese is higher than the general population. He said there has been little study conducted on why in part because the islanders have a natural mistrust for participating in research projects after what happened in their homeland with U.S. nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s. He said 50% of those living in the Marshall Islands have diabetes.

Riklon said there could be as many as 14,000 Marshallese living in Northwest Arkansas, though many are uncounted. A major win for the Marshallese is a new law in Arkansas that will extend healthcare via AR Kids to children under 18 in the local Marshallese population who qualify based on income.

Laura Kellams, director for the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, was honored at the AMHC forum with the Agent Change for Minority Health Award for her two-year effort to educate lawmakers on the need for the amended law. Kellams said the law didn’t recognize Marshallese children because they are not citizens, despite the fact they are here legally. She said while the adult breadwinner in the family usually has access to employer sponsored healthcare, the premiums are too expensive to cover dependents.

Health factors where Washington County has better statistics than statewide include:
• Physical inactivity rate of 25%, compared to 31% statewide;
• Access to exercise opportunities rate of 76%, compared to 61% statewide;
• Teen births of 37 annually, compared to 50 statewide; and
• Injury-related deaths at 51, compared to 78 statewide.

The county had a longer list of areas of concern which include:
• Adult smoker rate of 21%, compared to 25% statewide;
• Adult obesity rate of 31% compared to 34% statewide;
• Uninsured rate of 17%, compared 14% statewide;
• Mammography screening at 55%, compared to 58% statewide;
• Motor vehicle crash fatalities of 29 annually, compared to 19 statewide; and
• Alcohol-impaired driving deaths 36%, versus 28% statewide.

The median household income for the county is $46.400, which is 10.47% higher than the statewide number. Still 7% of the children in Washington County are uninsured and that figure is deemed under-reported among the Hispanic and Marshallese children in the community.

McGhee said there has also been a rise in the suicide rate among Pacific Islanders in Springdale. She said most of the suicides are drug overdoses. She said while the region is ahead of most the state in terms of health outcomes and primary care access, there are major gaps for the uninsured, including lack of access to specialty care for cancer treatment, dialysis and other critical care.

A separate report by the Centers for Disease Control pegs the uninsured rate in Springdale at 25% which is more believable than the 17% countywide number reported in the other report, according to McGhee. The CDC report showed Fayetteville’s uninsured adult rate at 17%.

Following are the top and bottom five counties with respect to health outcomes.

Top 5 counties (health outcomes)
1. Benton County
2. Saline County
3. Washington County
4. Faulkner County
5. Grant County

Bottom 5 counties (health outcomes)
71. Mississippi County
72. Nevada County
73. Desha County
74. Lafayette County
75. Phillips County

Link here for a PDF of the 2017 County Health Rankings.