By Michael D. Doyle
For The Herald Bulletin
Studies from the last year show the general health of Madison County’s citizens among the lowest in the state.
According to www.countyhealthrankings.org, which researches and ranks the overall health of every county in the nation, Madison was 75th of the state of Indiana’s 92 counties. The comprehensive study includes factors such as environment, education, mental health and socioeconomics in addition to physical health factors like smoking, obesity and alcohol use.
However, as Madison County Health Department administrator Steve Ford suggests, that does not mean that the county’s residents are necessarily at a disadvantage when it comes to medical care and obtaining the means for a healthy lifestyle.
“We have one of the best counties in the state in terms of clinical care,” Ford said. “We have three hospitals here where a lot of counties only have one. There is plenty of opportunity when it comes to maintaining one‘s health.”
The reason the county struggles, Ford believes, is in matters of personal choice. When it comes to health factors largely based on lifestyle — such as smoking, drinking and obesity - Madison ranked 91st in the state. Geography would not seem to play a part -neighboring Hamilton County ranked first in the state in the same survey.
That’s something that baffles Ford’s organization on a regular basis.
“We wish we knew why,” he said. “If we did maybe we could change things. Why do people here choose to smoke or be overweight when the people in the neighboring county do not? It all comes down to an individual making the decision to be healthy and for whatever reason we are doing poorly in that area.”
While nutrition and access to health care are major factors in overall health, Ford does not believe Madison County falls short in those particulars.
“We have plenty of programs for low-income people such as food stamps and WIC, and the hospitals all have charitable programs to help the uninsured,” he said.
At least part of the problem may be attributable to simple economics. County Health Rankings finds that low income and employment in a region have direct correlation to the prevalance of unhealthy behaviors of its populace - behaviors such as heavy tobacco and alcohol use, poor diet choices and even child abuse.
Compounding the problem may be a lack of funds directed toward public awareness. The state of Indiana is 41st in the nation in dollars spent on public health care. Ford believes that is something that should be changed.
“The key to all of this is education,” he said. “People have to understand that they have a choice when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. I hear so many people say there’s no point in bothering because it’s always going to be this way. But I’ve also seen people that have made the decision to change their lives and have done just that.
“We are a free country,” he continued. “People are allowed to make their own choices on how they live. All we can do is educate people and hope for the best.”