That’s the advice of East Tennessee State University College of Public Health Dean Dr. Randy Wykoff.
Wykoff was quoted in a recent feature article about Washington County published by the U.S. News & World Report together with its Healthiest Communities rankings. Though we weren’t one of the healthiest communities, the county received a mention on the website’s Honor Roll, a list of places that “best serve their residents in the face of often complex health-related challenges.”
The writer of the article, in interviews with local mayors, educators and economic development officials, explored the juxtaposition of the wealth of medical care options available — multiple hospitals, care centers and medical and pharmacy colleges — with the relatively poor health of the county’s residents.
Washington County’s overall score, which considers population health, education, economy, housing, nutrition, environment, public safety and other factors, was 57, putting it well outside the list’s top 500 healthiest.
In the article and in an interview Monday, Wykoff stressed the importance of reducing the number of people in poverty and increasing the average level of education, key social factors that play roles in health.
In a study published last year comparing the wealthiest and poorest counties in the country, Wykoff and his fellow researchers found a seven- to 10-year difference in life expectancy between the counties at the extremes of the socioeconomic scale.
“If you want to improve the health in the region, you’re looking at a three-legged stool, with economic development, education and behavior changes,” he said. “Part of the challenge in a region like ours, is we’ve made progress in health care and some in education, but these things take time, you’re not going to see changes overnight.”
Wykoff applauded recent initiatives undertaken in the area, like the formation of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership to work together to improve the economies of Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties, and education programs started by organizations like the Niswonger Foundation to improve graduation rates.
“These things are critically important, and seeing regional collaboration is a very positive sign,” he said. “I think the region has also done some smart things in terms of tourism, parks and trails.”
The past few years have seen a boom in outdoor recreational offerings, from the Tweetsie Trail between Johnson City and Elizabethton, to the opening of Rocky Fork State Park in Unicoi County.
This summer, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership will hold the inaugural Meet the Mountains Festival to celebrate the natural assets situated locally and encourage tourism.
Economic development officials hope the new festival will secure our region’s place on the map for outdoor enthusiasts and help market us to potential employers looking to relocate.
Focusing on the wealth of activities and the economic growth potential could have a dramatic impact on the region’s health, Wykoff said.