The numbers make it clear: Hernando County residents could be a whole lot healthier.
According to a report released recently by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Hernando ranks in the bottom third of Florida counties in a number of categories tallied to gauge a community's overall health.
Years lost to premature death here are higher than the Florida average. Nearly one in four adults smoke, and a little more than one in four adults are obese. The average number of poor health days — both physical health and mental health — is twice the state average, and one in five people younger than 65 are uninsured.
The county also ranks low in social and economic factors, which experts say are direct contributors to poor physical and mental health. More than one in four Hernando children in poverty. One in every five adults lack adequate social or emotional support.
The study, now in its fourth year, measures the health of nearly all counties in the nation and rank them within states. The rankings are compiled using county-level measures from a variety of national and state data sources. These measures are standardized and combined using scientifically-informed weights.
"More than anything, it allows us to see where we stand and where we can improve," said Ann-Gayl Ellis, spokeswoman for the Hernando County Health Department.
Though many of the numbers are concerning, there some encouraging trends, Ellis said.
The number of adult smokers is declining. In the last three years, about 3,400 have quit smoking, in large part due to more access to free cessation programs, tougher tobacco policies in workplaces, and prevention-based education in schools.
"Tobacco cessation and prevention has been a real pet project of the Department of Health," she said. "We can have such a great outcome if we help people quit or keep kids from starting because it's such an underlying factor of so many chronic diseases."
The study also shows that the number of diabetes screenings is steadily rising in Hernando. The YMCA received a federal grant last year to offer a diabetes prevention program targeted at people diagnosed with pre-diabetes, Ellis said.
Perhaps most encouraging is an effort to revitalize the county's Community Health Improvement Partnership.
The health department along with local stakeholders and support from the WellFlorida Council completed a health improvement plan in September. Now a partnership of social service agencies, local government, non-profit groups, and private businesses will tackle strategies outlined in the plan.
One of the first is to expand Hernando's presence on a nationwide hotline, Ellis said. People can dial 211 to learn about health resources in their area.
"What the health rankings study demonstrates is that it takes the community to improve the health of the community," Ellis said.
Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.