It may also have the most formidable task in the nation.
Since its founding in 2006, the college has been the leading advocate for improving the health of Tennessee residents. It’s an understatement to say we’re not the healthiest of folks.
That’s why it was welcome news earlier this week that U.S. News and World Report recently placed ETSU in the top third of schools and programs of public health accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health. The publication ranked the college 46th out of 177 schools, placing it among the top 10 public health graduate schools in the southeastern United States.
The college also has been recognized for its efforts with the Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment to combat the opioid abuse epidemic plaguing the nation, especially here in our mountains.
But what a challenge the college has.
The United Health Foundation lists Tennessee at 42nd in the nation for overall health in its 2018 America’s Health Rankings. That’s far better than in 2005 when it was 49th, but the state still shows awful ratings in numerous health risk categories. More of us smoke than people in most states. More of are overweight. More of us rarely or never exercise. More of us abuse drugs, especially opioids.
The results of those lifestyle decisions are alarming. Tennessee ranks 46th in the country for cancer deaths at 217.7 per 100,000, 45th for cardiovascular deaths at 310.4 per 100,000, 45th for diabetes at 13.1 percent of all residents and 39th in infant mortality at 7.2 per 1,000 live births.
Here in Johnson City, the effects of the opioid epidemic are clear. As of October, about 30 percent of infants in the Niswonger Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care unit were living with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
The drug overdose rate is 66 percent higher in this region than the national rate.
Other factors in our bad health include a lack of mental health providers (45th in the nation), a lack of dentists (40th) and the percentage of uninsured residents (36th). Perhaps the most disheartening statistic contributing to poor health: 21.2 percent of our children live in poverty (40th).
So the advocacy, research and instruction taking place at ETSU is essential. Tennessee and Central Appalachia cannot afford to remain behind the rest of the country when it comes to the wellbeing of its citizens.