Study: 10 of 17 WNC counties ranked in top half for 2012 health outcomes

Excessive drinking. Adult obesity. Preventable hospital stays. Premature deaths.

These may not top-of-mind dinner conversation topics, but just where your county ranks in these and other health factors can offer you, your elected officials and healthcare providers and advocates further clues to residents’ well-being.

The 2012 County Health Rankings, released in early April and published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, provides an overview to and comparison of residents’ health in more than 3,000 counties and the District of Columbia. The study not only measured obesity and premature deaths, but also physical environment and social and economic factors, including the number of fast food restaurants located in a county.

In North Carolina, the study — which is in its third year — ranked all 100 counties. Carolina Public Press looked into the 2012 study to find how the 17 westernmost counties stacked up. We found:

  • Ten of the 17 WNC counties ranked in the top half for overall health outcomes. The seven to fall in the bottom half were Cherokee, Graham, Haywood, McDowell, Mitchell, Rutherford and Swain counties.
  • Between 2011 and 2012, rankings for eight of the 17 westernmost counties improved. They are Avery, Buncombe, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Macon and Mitchell counties. Rankings for Jackson and Yancey counties stayed the same. Rankings for the remaining seven — Cherokee, Madison, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain and Transylvania counties — fell from 2011 and 2012.
  • The top-ranked WNC county was Macon County, which ranked 13th in the state. That is up from its placing at 34th in 2011.
  • The bottom-ranked WNC county was Swain County, which ranked 95th in the state. That is down from its placing at 90th in 2011. It was also the bottom-ranked county for health outcomes in the region in 2011.
  • Avery County can claim the biggest gain in rankings for overall health outcomes. At 15th in the state in 2012, that is up from 45th in 2011.
  • Madison County had the biggest fall in rankings for overall health outcomes, at 30th in the state in 2012. That is down from 14th in 2011, when it was the highest-ranked county among the 17 westernmost counties.

According to the study authors, healthier counties are those where people live longer and have a better quality of life. They tend to have lower rates of smoking, physical inactivity, teen births, violent crime and access to primary-care physicians, among other factors.

But each county still has areas for improvement, called “areas to explore” in the study.

In Macon County, the highest-ranked WNC county for health outcomes, the study pointed to adult obesity (25 percent), adult smoking (20 percent) and children in poverty (31 percent) as issues for potential action.

By comparison, it pointed to nine areas in Swain County, the lowest ranked WNC county for health outcomes. As in Macon, it mentioned adult smoking (32 percent), adult obesity (32 percent) and children living in poverty (28 percent) as areas for attention. It also suggested teen birth rates, the numbers of preventable hospital stays, diabetic and mammography screening, the high school graduation rate and the rate of violent crime.

Here’s how the entire 17-county region ranked for overall health outcomes, both in 2012 and in 2011:

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Angie Newsome was the executive director and editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact her at (828) 774-5290 or e-mail her at

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