ELIZABETHTOWN — A comprehensive health action plan that focuses on solutions for the many roots of well-being disparities displayed in North Carolina’s 60 rural counties is receiving a thumbs up from the Bladen County Health Department’s director.
Bladen is one of those 60 counties included in the plan.
The plan, put together by the North Carolina Institute of Medicine Task Force on Rural Health, points to six priority areas, identifies strategies at the state and local levels that range from behavioral health to childhood development to investments in high-speed broadband Internet – all of which focus on increasing the health and well-being of rural North Carolina.
“Bladen, like many other (southeastern North Carolina) counties, suffers from a glaringly apparent disparity between urban and rural counties,” said Cris Harrelson. “This gap of resources and opportunities has only increased in recent years. The N.C. Rural Health Action Plan provides practical strategies that can be used by community leaders to help turn the tide.”
One in five North Carolinians, almost 2.2 million people, live in 60 rural counties – 28 in the Coastal Plain, 14 in the Piedmont and 18 in the Mountains. Rural North Carolina has a rich cultural and industrial heritage, people who are self-reliant and innovative, and a strong sense of community. People from rural communities are less likely to have access to health services, are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors and have a higher mortality rate on average than North Carolinians living in non-rural areas.
In Bladen County, Task Force members found a number of strong indicators for poor health. Twenty-five percent – a quarter of Bladen County residents – are living below the poverty line, and 10 percent are unemployed. In addition, Bladen County has a high prevalence of adult obesity with 36 percent of the population reporting a BMI greater than 30. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this figure is significantly higher than the North Carolina average obesity rate of 29 percent. Obesity is a leading cause of heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses.
But, according to the findings of the Task Force, North Carolina’s health disparities go far beyond health care. In recent years, the struggling manufacturing and agricultural industries have created an increasing gap between North Carolina’s rural and urban counties. More rural residents live below the poverty line, which is directly tied to poor health.
Harrelson agreed with those findings.
“In my professional opinion, the top three contributing factors to poor health in Bladen County are a lack of industry, leading to higher than average unemployment rates and lower than average per capita income; poor mental health/substance abuse issues; and unhealthy habits — such as poor nutrition and lack of physical activity that lead to obesity and chronic illnesses (e.g. diabetes, heart disease),” Harrelson said.
To increase economic security and thus the overall level of health among rural residents, the Action Plan calls on the General Assembly, health care and business leaders, and local communities to implement short- and long-term plans and programs geared toward improving the economic stability of local communities.
“We all have a stake in the health of our community,” Harrelson said. “Therefore, we must work together to overcome the obstacles to healthy living. As director of public health, I’m willing to bring the leaders of our community together to discuss the strategies included within the plan.
“No single person or group can tackle this problem alone,” he added. “It will take leaders from business and government, educators, employers, citizens, and organizations representing many interests working together to create opportunities to live a healthy life. While results may take years to achieve, we can start down the road to better health today.”
Harrelson said Bladen County already has in place a local effort to address health issues.
“The Healthy Bladen Collaborative is a great example of a diverse group of people who meet monthly to discuss issues affecting the health of Bladen’s citizens,” he said. “Its memberships includes representatives from Bladen County Schools, N.C. Cooperative Extension, Bladen County/Cape Fear Valley Hospital, Bladen County Health Services, East Point Mental Health Services, and many other state and county agencies.
“The Collaborative has been the motivational force behind many of the improvements made in Bladen’s community health within the past few years,” he added.