Jackson County's overall health is above average and it posts an excellent rating in health-threatening behaviors such as smoking, obesity, harmful drinking and high-risk sex, according to the annual County Health Rankings, released online Wednesday.

Jackson County's overall health is above average and it posts an excellent rating in health-threatening behaviors such as smoking, obesity, harmful drinking and high-risk sex, according to the annual County Health Rankings, released online Wednesday.

Overall, Jackson County came in 13th of 33 reporting Oregon counties. It did the best of any county in the southern half of the state and is surrounded by three cellar-dwelling counties — Josephine, Douglas and Klamath, which came in 30th, 31st and 32nd, respectively.

Published at countyhealthrankings.org, the national survey by University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation uses latest available data to evaluate factors leading to good or poor health, including income, education, healthy food supply, health insurance, single-parent homes, the regional environment and hazardous health behaviors.

In "health behaviors," which also covers teen birth rates, sexually transmitted diseases and highway fatalities, Jackson County ranked eighth, well ahead of the counties that encompass Portland, Salem, Eugene, Roseburg and Grants Pass.

In "physical environment," which covers air quality and access to healthy foods and recreational facilities, Jackson County also shone, placing 10th.

Under "clinical care," which includes uninsured adults, primary care providers, preventable hospital stays and screening for breast cancer and diabetes, Jackson County fell in the lower half of counties at 19th.

For "social and economic factors," meaning high school graduates, college attendance, unemployment, children in poverty, single-parent households, violent crime and social support, Jackson County is 22nd in the state.

In the overarching factor of income, Jackson County ranked at the 68th percentile in Oregon and 65th percentile in the U.S. In the equally important factor of education, it was at the 61st percentile in Oregon and the 58th percentile in the nation.

"A lot of the pieces of health have to do with the economy, education levels and unemployment," said Belle Shepherd, county Public Health Services manager. "Jackson County has a high economic and educational status, with more jobs and ability to pay for health care."

Jackson County also has a lot of farmers, who sell their fresh produce at several growers' markets that are easily accessible to all, said Shepherd. And it has many public parks, bike trails and fitness classes, she notes.

Surrounding counties have lower education and higher unemployment, and this impacts all the other factors there, she said. A former public health manager for Josephine County, Shepherd said Josephine shows a "big gap" in employment and education with state levels and, being rural, has less access to clinics, exercise classes, tobacco cessation and family planning for teens.

The long and severe recession will have effects on the data that won't be known for sometime, she said, skewing our understanding of present realities.

"It's a picture of all that happens that affects health and from the point-of-view of public health, it tells us what we can do to reduce smoking, obesity, teen pregnancy and other issues," she said.

Shannon Ryan, district school nurse for Medford schools, said socio-economic factors have greatly worsened since the recession.

"We're having lots of conversations with parents who say they've lost their jobs, have no health care, have gotten food stamps for the first time and can't afford ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) medicines for their kids, so it affects their schoolwork," said Ryan. "They'll say there's pneumonia or a broken arm in the family but they can't afford to get help."

Schools are signing students on the Oregon Healthy Kids program and referring them to Community Health Center, which has made that age and economic group a priority, but "in so many cases, the jobless rate means so many families don't have what they need."

The county's lowest category — socio-economic factors — shows Jackson County worse than the state average in high school graduates, 70 percent, some college, 58 percent, unemployment, 12.6 percent, children in poverty, 18 percent, and single-parent households, 30 percent.

In violent crime, Jackson County's rate is 250 crimes per 100,000 population, slightly below the state average. Medford Lt. Bob Hansen said crime is up 8.6 percent from 2009 through 2010. He attributes it to population growth, declining tolerance for domestic violence and more cellphones for people to call in crimes.

"Medford is one of the safest cities in the nation for its size," said Hansen.

To see more, visit www.countyhealthrankings.org and click on Oregon on the U.S. map, then click the county map or the tabs, which include Health Factor Ratings.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.