Beaufort County was ranked the healthiest county in the state for the fifth consecutive year, despite increases in childhood poverty and adult obesity.
The county has led South Carolina since at least 2010 in County Health Rankings released annually by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Jasper County ranked 22nd, and the Pee Dee's Marion County was ranked last in the new assessment, released Wednesday.
Institute researcher Jan O'Neill said she encourages all counties to use the rankings as a roadmap.
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For example, Beaufort County had encouraging results as far as health care. The county has one dentist per 1,133 residents, compared to 2,129 statewide, and 48 preventable hospital stays per 1,000 Medicare enrollees, compared to 59 statewide.
However, even communities in good shape have problem areas, O'Neill said.
The ranking takes into account 29 health factors, along with five health outcomes that gauge length and quality of life. In Beaufort County, 22 percent of children live below the federal poverty line, an increase from 16 percent in 2010 when the county was among the nation's top performers in that measure. Statewide, childhood poverty has increased from 21 percent in 2010 to 27 percent. The rate of adult obesity was 21 percent, up from 20 in 2010.
The county already is working to improve, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which declined to comment on the ranking itself.
For example, seven community gardens, including one in Sheldon, provide fresh produce to hundreds of people who would otherwise go without.
However, if a community wants to keep its numbers inching down, it should focus on social and economic factors like the quality of schools and availability of jobs, O'Neill said.
Mark Senn, senior director of Beaufort Memorial Hospital's LifeFit Wellness Services, agreed.
He said a slight increase in adult obesity is not worrisome, but hospital-coordinated assessments of Beaufort County students since 2006 have shown 28 to 32 percent were overweight or obese. Senn said he's also encouraged to see the Beaufort County School District improving students' meals and opportunities for exercise.
In some other measures, the county excels statewide but lags behind the nation's top performers. For example, 65 percent of Beaufort County residents have adequate health care access, compared to 56 percent on average in South Carolina. In leading counties nationwide, 85 percent of residents have adequate access.
"The ranking is really a call to action," O'Neill said. "The question is, is that good enough compared to the rest of the nation?"
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.