Nancy Bell of the Virginia Department of Health speaks during a recent event to share results of several reports on the Martinsville-Henry County region's health. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

A pair of surveys has raised concerns about community health in Martinsville and Henry County. 

Spearheaded by multiple agencies, including the Harvest Foundation and the Virginia Department of Health, the surveys provide a snapshot into current regional health conditions by analyzing factors such as poverty rates and access to food. 

The major takeaway: The Martinsville and Henry County community is underperforming in a number of health outcomes. 

“I want you to take into context, this is pulled from a lot of places,” said Pamela Chitwood of the West Piedmont Health District, who said that the data came from local agencies and surveys of residents across socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Both reports are available online.

Examining the health of the Martinsville-Henry County region

Among the findings of two recent studies:

  • At around 45%, the rate of hypertension in Martinsville and Henry County is about 10 points higher than the state and national rates. 
  • About 42.9% of people throughout Martinsville and Henry County live in a food desert, while 25% do not own a car. 
  • Henry County is in the top 10 Virginia counties for rate of fatal overdoses.
  • 46.4% of the combined Martinsville and Henry County population lives below 200% percent of the federal poverty level.
  • Some 120 unhoused people were identified throughout the surveyed area of Henry County and Martinsville.  

Source: Henry Martinsville Community Health Equity Assessment 2023, Harvest Foundation MHC Health Equity Report.

“They are complementary studies that provide needed insights that can help develop programs and policies that address our unique health challenges,” Harvest Foundation President Kate Keller said. 

[Disclosure: The Harvest Foundation is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.]

Keller and other officials said the ultimate goal behind the surveys was to not only identify problem areas but to galvanize community members into finding and working toward solutions. They encouraged residents to participate in a series of work groups, each designed to hash out potential policy prescriptions to local and state officials. 

Those interested in taking part can email Chitwood at pamela.chitwood@vdh.virginia.gov to add their names to the workgroup roster. They can also attend a meeting at noon Oct. 26 at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville. 

Keller and others touted the importance of finding solutions instead of merely identifying problems, while Nancy Bell of the Virginia Health Department said that knowing and acknowledging the problem is also important. 

Chief among those issues are disparities in local lifespans relative to the state. Henry County has a life expectancy of 74.4 years, Martinsville 67.2 years. According to the state, Virginia’s overall life expectancy is around 78.3 years. 

Investigators identified a number of reasons for the discrepancy, including differing outcomes along racial lines. The survey shows that Black and Latino participants are overrepresented in lifespans that fall below the state average. Conversely, factors like possession of a high school diploma are a common trait among those who have longer lives. 

Socioeconomics is another key determinant. Surveyors noted that hypertension is more prevalent among residents who make less than $25,000 annually. 

“There are an alarming number of our citizens who are living below the 200% poverty level,” said the Harvest Foundation’s Sheryl Agee, adding that 46.4% fall into that category. This, according to Agee, is around 29,000 people in Henry County and Martinsville. 

While the rate of hypertension for Martinsville and Henry County is around 45%, the state’s rate of hypertension is around 35%. 

“Higher rates of hypertension leads the community to heart disease, stroke, as well as brain issues,” Chitwood said. 

Access to healthy foods is another factor. According to the surveys, 42.9% of Henry County and Martinsville residents live within an area designated as a food desert. Statewide, that number is 14%. The survey defines a food desert as an area where residents must travel 10 or more miles to a large grocer. The surveys also highlight that across the county, around 25% of households and individuals do not own a car, compounding the issue. 

“The lack of healthy foods leads to obesity, leads to chronic health diseases,” Chitwood said. 

While officials admit that the figures are not encouraging, they believe that the surveys can serve as a turning point. Bell offered a call to action to residents. 

“We need a reality check,” she said, adding that officials will spend the next several weeks establishing the work groups to think up solutions to these issues. 

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at dean@cardinalnews.org...