Sarasota County among seven in the state where people do not die prematurely, study shows

County’s health official cites the community’s ‘social determinants’ and a broad array of initiatives as reasons for the high ranking

Chuck Henry. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County
Chuck Henry. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

As Sarasota County’s health official puts it, “Place matters.”

Nonetheless, Chuck Henry, who has helmed the Health Department in Sarasota County since 2011, cites a broad array of factors — from general demographics to miles of walking and biking trails — as the reason Sarasota County is one of seven Florida counties where people do not die prematurely.

The 2015 Florida Health Gaps Report, prepared under the aegis of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and released last month, listed Sarasota, Collier, Martin, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, St Johns and Seminole counties as the only ones in the state without an excess of deaths occurring before the age of 75.

Neighboring Manatee County loses 110 more people than it should each year, the report says.

Among the counties with the highest percentages of excess premature deaths, the report says, are Union (50 percent); Baker and Gadsden (32 percent); Holmes (31 percent); and Bradford, Columbia, Hamilton, Liberty and Putnam (all 30 percent).

“[I]f all residents in the state had a fair chance to be healthy,” the report points out, “[e]very year, nearly 8,000 deaths in Florida could be avoided, and Florida would count 544,000 fewer adult smokers, 478,000 fewer obese adults, 799,000 fewer adults who drink excessively and 1 million fewer people who are uninsured.

The study was designed to “help Florida state leaders as they identify ways for everyone to have a fair chance to lead the healthiest life possible,” the report says.

The 2015 Health Gaps Report provides a chart showing factors that contribute to avoiding early deaths. Image courtesy Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The 2015 Florida Health Gaps Report provides a chart showing factors that contribute to avoiding early deaths. Image courtesy Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Sarasota’s strong showing follows on the heels of its third-place ranking in the 2015 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report of Florida health factors; and its listing in sixth place on the Foundation’s 2015 Health Outcomes report. Both of those lists were released in March.

During a Dec. 2 telephone interview with the News Leader, Henry pointed out a key group of elements in the overall health of a community: its “social determinants.” The World Health Organization calls those “the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.”

Many public health officials believe social determinants account for 50 percent of health outcomes, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, Henry explained. What influences the other 50 percent, he continued, are factors such as smoking, weight and amount of physical activity.

The 2015 Health Gaps Report lists all 67 Florida counties. Image courtesy Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The 2015 Health Outcomes Report lists lists positive factors for Sarasota County. Image courtesy Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

“We’re fortunate, I feel. … I think Sarasota is a community that invests heavily in public health.”

Leaders of both the City and County of Sarasota “and many, many human service agencies” work on issues to improve people’s health, Henry pointed out, and quite a few of those issues affect this community’s social determinants.

The Health Department’s mission is to focus on factors such as smoking cessation, helping people attain healthy weights and promoting physical activity, he continued, but it also plays a role in helping residents understand the link between social determinants and good health.

A map shows all Florida counties. Image from the U.S. Census Bureau
A map shows all Florida counties. Image from the U.S. Census Bureau

Community initiatives

Having spent his 24-year U.S. Navy career in public health — followed by a stint as environmental health director in Manatee County before taking the same position in Sarasota County in 2005 — Henry is passionate about helping people work together to achieve longer, fuller lives.

One big initiative that began about the time he relocated to the Sarasota County Health Department is the Community Health Assessment. The first one was conducted in 2006, he noted, while the second was completed in 2010. The Health Department has been at work on its third assessment, he added, gathering information through surveys, studies and public meetings to “get a sense” of what people feel are the critical factors that have an impact on their health.

After he and his staff have compiled the material, Henry said, they will “bounce it off” all the available data sets to develop a community health improvement plan.

The Health Department's homepage offers links to numerous programs. Image from the website
The Health Department’s homepage offers links to numerous programs. Image from the website

Already, he said, they have identified the top three areas of concern: healthiest weight; mental health and substance abuse problems; and access to care. Of the latter, he added, “That’s a statewide concern.”

According to the Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) at the University of Florida, Sarasota County has 1,108 physicians for its estimated population of 392,090. In contrast, Union County has eight for its estimated 15,918 residents, BEBR data shows.

After the assessment has been published, Henry said, the Health Department will work with community partners to put the plan into operation.

Other positive factors

Beyond the department’s actions, he pointed out, two other important factors are the Community Health Action Teams established in North Port, Venice/Nokomis, Englewood and Newtown. Those grass-roots groups work to identify issues that need to be addressed in their specific areas, he added. The Health Department’s role is to support the teams and identify resources that can help them achieve their goals. “Those [groups] have been very successful,” he noted.

Yet another effort that is seeing growing engagement, Henry continued, is the Drug-Free Youth Program, which began in North Port and has expanded into the Venice/Nokomis area and the city of Sarasota. More than 3,000 high school students have signed the pledge to remain alcohol- and drug-free, he said.

As an incentive, the students receive discounts from local merchants, and they receive recognition in wearing a special cord at graduation.

“There are [programs] like that our community does and engages in that really make a difference,” Henry added.

And while he acknowledged discord over city and county approaches to helping the homeless, Henry pointed out that the programs that have been put in place have been “huge.”

Further, he continued, county policies — ranging from stipulations about where flavored tobacco products can be displayed in stores to measures designed to reduce prescription drug abuse to increasing the miles of walking and biking trails — “are where we as a community can make a big difference.”

Overall, Henry said, “I’m pretty excited about what goes on in this community.”