Challenges remain regarding tobacco use, drunk-driving deaths and ratio of physicians to residents

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Local teens have gotten involved in slowing tobacco use in Crook County, including participation in a cigarette butt cleanup downtown.

Crook County has made some modest gains this past year in its health rankings, but challenges and room for improvement remain.

According to annual rankings, the county was 22nd out of 35 Oregon counties in overall health outcomes — Wheeler County did not receive a ranking. Last year, they ranked 25th.

"I think one of the things that drove that was improved low birth weight (percentage)," said Crook County Health Department Director Muriel DeLaVergne-Brown.

The county improved from a low birth weight rate of 7 percent last year to 6 percent this year.

"That also improves the quality of life subcategory," DeLaVergne-Brown added, noting that it rose from 33rd to 28th this past year.

Low birth weight, which in the county health rankings is defined as a child born at a weight of less than 5.512 pounds, can stem from several things, DeLaVergne-Brown said, but what has typically been a factor locally is Crook County has high number of pregnant women who use tobacco.

Tobacco use in general remains an issue in Crook County, DeLaVergne-Brown went on to say, although the issue has diminished in recent years.

"I think overall we are seeing a little bit of improvement as far as a lower percentage," she said, "but we are still higher (16 percent of residents) compared to other counties, so tobacco is still a concern that we have and we continue to work on it in Crook County."

Overall, the health factors category, which includes tobacco use and excessive drinking as well as clinical care statistics, social and economic factors and physical environment, data has improved from the previous year. The ranking jumped from 30th to 25th.

"I think that some of the areas where we are performing well are excessive drinking (17 percent locally versus 19 percent statewide), even though that is still high," DeLaVergne-Brown said. "Our rates of some STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) have dropped compared to Oregon as a whole. We have been working really hard in that area."

Mixed with the improvements are areas that remain a concern locally. One of the more troubling rankings, DeLaVergne-Brown said, is the percentage of motor vehicle crashes due to alcohol impairment. About 58 percent of driver deaths in Crook County were due to drunk driving as opposed to 31 percent statewide.

And the local physician-to-resident ratio remains a concern.

"Even though we just (added) three providers at St. Charles, the ratio of population to primary care physicians still causes issues of access," she said.

DeLaVergne-Brown also noted that childhood poverty remains an issue locally, with 21 percent of Crook County children facing poverty, according to the rankings, versus 17 percent statewide.

The modest improvements are attributed to the combination of County Health Department programs that are working in concert with initiatives, like Crook County On The Move, DeLaVergne-Brown said. She notes that it can take a while for things to change, but the dedication to improvement is starting to bear fruit.

"I think the positive is we are on the upward trend," she said.

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