The top five health priorities for Hamblen County, according to community input, are Health Literacy, Drug/Substance Abuse, Obesity, Access to Mental Health Services and Tobacco/Vaping.

The priorities were determined through the County Health Assessment that began in January, facilitated by the Hamblen County Health Council and Morristown-Hamblen Healthcare System/Covenant Health. The county is one of 16 piloting the CHA across the state. Over the course of three years, all 89 rural counties in the state will complete an assessment.

The Health Council was mandated within the six-month assessment process to identify and engage stakeholders, review existing data, collect primary data and prioritize county health issues.

The partnership with MHHS/Covenant was a mutual consideration of efficiency.

“Non-profit hospitals are required to also do CHA every 3 years so it just made sense for us to team together to do it,” Hamblen County Health Department Director Sherrie Montgomery said.

Volunteers from various health sectors within the county participated in the process, along with community stakeholders. Existing health-related secondary data was reviewed and primary health data was collected in the form of community surveys, both paper and electronic, and two focus groups representing many different segments of the county.

Results of the primary and secondary data were summarized and then reviewed by a team of volunteers. The team met twice to discuss and categorize the community’s health priorities, as evidenced by the data.

“Action plans will now be developed within the Hamblen County Health Department and the Hamblen County Health Council to address these areas,” Montgomery said.

Health Literacy was determined as the No. 1 priority due to a need seen by the assessment review team to provide health and wellness education to all county citizens.

Drug abuse was identified as the county’s most severe problem by 85.8 percent of the 388 people who participated in the community surveys conducted by telephone, in-person and online.

Overweight adults were identified as the most severe problem by 75.6 percent of participants, with diabetes ranked as the most severe by 64 percent. After discussion, the assessment review team concluded that the two categories could be addressed within the same action plan.

Mental Health Services were also ranked as a severe problem by those participating in the surveys, as were tobacco use by adults and youth and vaping.

Two focus groups were completed with Hamblen County community leaders for the CHA. Their purpose was to identify health issues facing county residents, especially resident from vulnerable populations; to identify what resources are currently available to address the issues and to identify what additional resources may be needed.

A total of 23 people participated in the focus groups and the majority gave the overall health in the county a grade of C.

One participant said they would have given a split grade if that had been possible.

“I think we’ve improved in our prevention efforts as a community … over the years, there’s been a lot of collaboration with all the key partners … as far as actually looking at disease rates, for chronic diseases — and a lot of the chronic diseases that may be a result of opioid addiction —we are just butting our heads and it’s so frustrating,” the participant said.

Other concerns voiced by the focus groups were obesity, especially among young children; lack of opportunity for physical activity for children outside of school; and increased homelessness and drug use.

“There’s probably very few families in our town that hasn’t been affected in one way or another with the issue of the substance abuses and medications,” a participant said.

The focus groups were also asked to consider how health problems are experienced differently in the county, either by groups or areas. There was general agreement that those who are in the lower socioeconomic levels are most keenly affected by most of the health issues. The one exception is substance abuse, which affects all groups equally.