Kern County ranks toward the bottom of the state and the worst in the San Joaquin Valley for poor health outcomes — but it has been making progress when it comes to a few key measures, according to a report published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation this week.
Kern ranked 52nd out of 57 California counties that were analyzed for health outcomes. Fresno County came in 51st, and Tulare came in 50th, according to the report. It ranked counties on a variety of factors, including length and quality of life, health behaviors, social determinants, clinical care access and physical environments.
While Kern has remained relatively stagnant historically (it was ranked 53rd statewide last year), county residents have made progress decreasing rates of chlamydia, lowering the teen birthrate, enrolling for insurance and decreasing the number of preventable hospital stays recorded, data show.
“We know that the history in Kern County is that we haven’t had the best health outcomes, but we find some of these trends encouraging,” said Kim Hernandez, epidemiology manager for the Kern County Public Health Services Department. “We all have a role to play in our community health, and we can’t wait for (government) to fix this.”
While premature death rates have dropped overall by about 9 percent over the last two decades, those rates have began ticking up between 2014 and 2016, data show. Researchers calculated years of potential life lost by subtracting the ages people died by 75, the marker most commonly used to determine premature death.
The number of years potentially lost in Kern averaged 7,600 — 2,400 higher than the state average. African-Americans died the youngest, on average, with 11,800 years of life lost; white people had about 9,300 years of potential life lost; and Hispanics fared best with 5,900 years of life lost, according to the data. Average age of deaths were not provided.
A number of factors play into those life expectancies. Some of the county’s leading causes of death include coronary heart disease, diabetes and stroke — all of which are exacerbated by obesity. Roughly 32 percent of all Kern County adults are obese — the second-highest rate in the San Joaquin Valley, and 9 percentage points higher than the state average. Kern’s rates have been increasing since 2015.
Hernandez couldn’t point to one specific reason why obesity rates were spiking, but urged residents to reverse the trend by making small changes in their daily lives, whether it’s choosing healthier foods, spending breaks at work walking outside, or organizing a group of workout buddies.
“Take baby steps. We don’t expect health to turn around overnight,” Hernandez said. “We always want the healthy choice to be the easiest choice, but it’s our responsibility as a community to take responsibility for our own health.”
In some communities throughout Kern, it may not be easy to get to a grocery store that sells fruits or vegetables, she said, but insisted that parents should make efforts to get nutritious food for their children.
“You may not be willing to do it for yourself, but do it for your kids,” Hernandez said.
The public health department ramped up its commitment to reversing the rising trend of obesity this year, hiring a nutritionist for the first time in a decade. He will spend his time working to create community programs that encourage healthy eating habits.
Seizing upon data showing that local adults are getting less physical activity than they were just a few years ago, Hernandez suggested doctors begin prescribing exercise to their patients the same way they would prescribe pharmaceuticals.
When it comes to decreasing the stranglehold STDs have had on county residents, there’s been some progress. Rates of chlamydia dropped from 760 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 695 per 100,000 in 2018, according to the report. The report does not track other STDs; however Kern has historically maintained one of the state’s highest incidence rates.
The Kern County Public Health Services Department launched a monumental public awareness campaign in 2016 called “Know Your Risk,” that has brought attention to the region’s startling rates of teen birth and STDs.
While there’s no shortage of health issues community-wide, there’s a limited number of physicians in Kern, data shows. It’s an issue becoming more prevalent with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which has contributed to record low rates of uninsured people statewide.
There’s just one primary care physician to every 2,040 people in Kern County, according to the report. Counties across California, on average, have one primary care physician to every 1,280 people. The struggle to attract physicians to the Central Valley has long been a detriment to the region.
There have been gains recently, however, with Clinica Sierra Vista maintaining a residency program to train doctors locally, and Valley Children’s Hospital constructing a specialty care center in southwest Bakersfield scheduled to open Oct. 1.