The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

December 1, 2013

Survey: Obesity tops health concern, jobs first in Stanly County

By Ritchie Starnes, News Editor

Sunday, December 1, 2013 — Stanly County residents believe obesity is their primary health concern, with unemployment tops among community-related issues.

The results are in from the 2013 Stanly County Community Health Needs Assessment. While mostly bleak, the findings are not too different than those from two years ago.

Following obesity, residents ranked illegal drug use, cancer, diabetes and a lack of physical activity as the county’s top health concerns. The top four were also on the list from 2011.

As the case in 2011, local perceptions about community concerns remained the same this year for the top four. Unemployment ranked first, followed by a lack of health insurance, child abuse and neglect, and crime. Bullying rounded out the top five, replacing a lack of recycling from two years earlier.

Part of a collaborative effort by the Stanly County Health Department, Stanly Regional Medical Center and United Way of Stanly County, nearly 1,400 residents completed surveys detailing their perceptions on health and community concerns, according to Dennis Joyner, director of the health department. Data was also collected from focus groups.

“We want to get people’s perception of the issues in the county and see how that compares with state data,” Joyner said.

“The data serves as a catalyst to get people thinking about how to make our county a healthy community.”

He conceded that tobacco use and/or smoking, which ranked as the top health concern in 2011, was accidentally left off this year’s survey. The topic, however, was included in focus group discussions. Although the concern did not make the top five, officials conducting the analysis recognize tobacco/smoking remains a concern, Joyner said.

Most of Stanly County’s trends mirror patterns found throughout the state, particularly the region, Joyner said.

Smoking, for example, is declining among younger people. Electronic cigarette smoking is on the rise, and while that raises new debates about its healthiness, it, too, suggests that more people are trying to quit, Joyner said. One smoking-related demographic, however, remains troubling.

“We feel that pregnant women in Stanly County smoke more than in the rest of the state,” Joyner said.

“There’s still work to be done with tobacco use.”

Joyner presented the assessment findings to the county commissioners last week. Among the reasons for health surveys is to raise awareness when public policies are at stake. Grants, for example, are often tied to community impact.

Efforts are already underway to help change the local health culture and how it relates to diet and exercise.

Data obtained from the assessment prompted hospital leaders to implement proactive strategies toward cancer and diabetes, said Nicole Williams, director of marketing and service excellence for Stanly Regional Medical Center.

While certain cancers also have risk factors, she said more can be done to prevent diabetes.

“We are looking at ways to enhance our pre-diabetes educational program,” Williams said.

“Diabetes is about getting exercise and eating better.”

George Crooker, chief executive officer at the Stanly County Family YMCA, said more people are taking advantage of the facility to change their lifestyle en route to becoming healthier. Membership at the YMCA is about 8 percent higher this year over last, he said.

“We’re seeing more people wanting to take better care of themselves,” Crooker said.

Both he and Joyner pointed to the improvements at the Stanly County Farmers Market, which beginning next season will accept food stamps so the financially-challenged will have better access to fresh vegetables. It already recognizes Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Service (WIC).

Changing lifestyles is the first step toward changing a culture, Joyner said. Physical activity has waned over the years.

“We are not as engaged in physical activity,” Joyner said.

“It’s not the norm. We’ve got to shift the norm. It starts with having goals to take us into more physical activity.

“Change takes time. This obesity epidemic didn’t occur overnight so it’s not going away overnight.”

As for bullying cracking the top five in community-related issues, Joyner pointed to increased exposure of the problem as to why people recognize it as a growing problem.

“We are starting to see all of the negative consequences with bullying,” Joyner said.

While Stanly County shares many of the state’s health and community trends, there are some whereby Stanly is trending in the opposite direction.

Data shows suicide and injury-related categories are trending negatively, compared to the state.

“Stanly County is not immune to people feeling hopelessness,” Joyner said.

“Smaller, rural counties are going to suffer more in tough economic times than larger counties.”  

Call Ritchie Starnes at (704) 982-2121 ext. 28 or email ritchie@stanlynews