The health of Tennesseeans seems to be improving.
A report released this week by the United Health Foundation indicated Tennessee’s overall ranking for health improved from 42nd in the nation last year to 39th this year.
“When I came here (in 2007) Tennessee was ranked 48th, and with a one-year exception, we’ve pretty much seen a consistent improvement over time,” said Randy Wykoff, dean of the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University. “I think to go from 48th to 39th is pretty impressive.”
The report, America’s Health Rankings, measured, among other things, obesity rates, cancer rates, the prevalence of smoking, cardiovascular disease among the population and infant mortality rates.
Smoking and obesity seem to be down. Infant mortality rates are down, as are deaths from heart disease and cancer.
“What we’ve seen is a general improvement in our health behaviors, things we’re doing to be healthier,” Wykoff said.
Wykoff always commissions the creation of buttons with the state’s rank on them. The number is always crossed out, indicating Wykoff’s desire to improve the state’s ranking.
“Last year we were proud about being 42nd,” Wykoff said. “That was a good improvement. This year we’re even prouder of 39.”
While happy with the improvement in the public’s health in Tennessee, Wykoff said the numbers could be better. The yearly improvement is evidence change is possible, he said.
“There’s nothing about being 39th that is either acceptable or inevitable,” Wykoff said. “And if we as a community, we as families, if we as individuals all work together these numbers will get even better.”
Wykoff said while the report gives a hard number for a decrease in mortality rates, it is more difficult to interpret what an improvement in ranking means in the next three to five years, because it can take time for changes in behavior to be realized in the data.
“Folks that are dying of heart disease today were folks that may have started smoking 40, 50 years ago,” Wykoff said.
Wykoff said the College of Public Health at ETSU influences the state’s health ranking by educating the next generation of public health professionals who will go out and influence public knowledge and policy and by engaging in public education campaigns about healthy living.
“A lot of it is just education,” Wykoff said. “Educating folks that these are real issues but these things can change.”
He said good public health is essential to a vibrant state and community.
“Once businesses understand that economic development, education and health go hand in hand, you begin to realize you’re not going to have economic development if you’re not going to have a healthy work force,” Wykoff said.