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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO Christian Beasley of Bentonville rides his bike Feb. 15 at the Razorback Greenway in Bentonville. - Photo by Charlie Kaijo

Benton County leads the state each year in health rankings, but the honor loses a bit of its shine as Arkansas consistently is at the bottom of national lists, according to reports.

In the national comparisons, Benton County is in the bottom one-third of rankings, said Namvar Zohoori, chief science officer for the Arkansas Department of Health.

“By most measures, Arkansas is near the bottom in health rankings,” Zohoori said. “In terms of chronic diseases, immunizations, teen pregnancies and infant mortality, we lead with the worst outcomes.”

The 2017 America’s Health Rankings by the United Health Foundation put Arkansas as the 48th-healthiest state.

Benton County ranked No. 1 in the state last year for length of life, quality of life and other health behaviors, according to the County Health Ranking & Roadmaps. The county list is a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Washington County was third in the 2017 ranking.

A comparison across the state shows a wide disparity of what’s normal for Arkansan health.

Benton County has significantly reduced levels of major risk factors and rates of chronic diseases, Zohoori said.

Rates of obesity are 46 percent for Phillips County residents in east Arkansas’ Delta, 30 percent for Benton County residents and 31 percent in Washington County. About a quarter of Phillips County residents smoke, while 16 percent of Benton County residents and 21 percent of Washington County residents are smokers.

Access to physical activity reveals the biggest gap. In Phillips County, 4 percent of residents have easy access to get moving, while 83 percent of Benton County residents and 76 percent of Washington County residents have easy access.

“While we could look at Benton County and say we’re doing really well, we could also look across the country at counties that have equivalent population with similar income and socioeconomic factors,” Zohoori said. “And at that, Benton County is among the bottom.

“It means we can’t get complacent.”

The best way to influence health behaviors, Zohoori said, is to change the environment so residents have plenty of safe spaces to be active — walking outdoors, going to a park or farmers market — and a variety of places to get healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables. In that way, Benton County and Springdale are doing a lot of good work, he said.

All major Northwest Arkansas cities engaged in building the Razorback Greenway, a 36-mile trail system that improves access to physical activity. Many cities have focused on giving students a safe way to walk to school. Springdale and other cities have participated in Growing Healthy Communities, a program of the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention that works with cities to make healthy food and fitness within realistic reach for the average Arkansan.

Nick Ogle, who leads the nonprofit Center for Collaborative Care, said Northwest Arkansas has plenty of great providers and organizations to help residents lead healthy lifestyles, but they’re not well connected.

Ogle thinks residents will be better served and healthier once the region’s health care providers are collaborating and working toward the same goal. He aims to do that through the center, a platform and advocacy organization launched in September 2016.

A 2014 grant from the Endeavor Foundation funded the center and its first three years of operation. Staff members took the first 18 months to build its infrastructure and Hark, a technology program that allows providers to share health care information and where patients can easily find resources. The technology protects patient data so providers, organizations and nonprofit groups can share information legally at the consent of the patient, client or his guardian.

A system of community liaisons helped people set up their profiles and started to use the technology in July.

“To make an impact from a health perspective, we have to find patients’ social determinants, which are what they’re dealing with, whether that’s homelessness, food insecurity, domestic violence, or a lack of basic resources such as clothing and transportation,” Ogle said.

The center assesses a patient and builds a care plan based on his social determinants, Ogle said. Hark then creates a coordinated team by putting the patient in touch with all the providers and organizations that can help meet those needs, because most people have more than one health issue.

Patients can use the website to find food, housing, agencies and the requirements they would have to meet to get services.

“Our network is not used to its fullest, and it’s not a fault of anybody in Northwest Arkansas,” Ogle said.

Patients can access Hark from computers and by mobile, whether that’s a phone, iPad or other device. If a client doesn’t have a data plan, a liaison can meet him at a local McDonald’s or other business with free Wi-Fi to assist. Ogle hopes to roll out a Hark app.

Madi Hutson, executive director of the Teen Action Support Center in Rogers, said her organization has benefited from the free training sessions provided by the Center for Collaborative Care. Her clients, who are teenage parents and homeless teens, are beginning to benefit from Hark.

“It definitely saves us money,” Hutson said. As a nonprofit group, it’s hard to set aside money for training. The Teen Center was using a program similar to Hark that came with a fee.

In a recent event, the Teen Center faced a diaper crisis. They had an excess of size three diapers, but many of its clients needed size six. Through the Center for Collaborative Care, they found a similar organization that was facing a similar crisis and swapped donations, which saved them $10,000 in supply purchases.

Hark saves the center’s staff a lot of time and effort, she said.

“In our work, we have to talk to other providers, and we sign a release of information each time we do,” Hut-son said. “Hark will cut down on that. The person approves that yes, a case manager can talk to their teacher. You only do it one time. The potential of that is huge.”

Acquiring so many signatures and release forms hinders the nonprofit group’s ability to help in an emergency, she said. The new technology will help them help teens faster and without the temptation to cut corners.

“With Hark, we’re not put at risk in any way,” Hutson said.

April Wallace can be reached by email at awallace@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWAApril.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO Joggers make their way through a tunnel on a bike path Feb. 15 at the Razorback Greenway in Bentonville. Benton County leads the state in county health rankings.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO Olivia Minteer of Centerton, 3, plays on the outdoor gym Feb. 15 along the Razorback Greenway in Bentonville.

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