When it comes to the overall health of residents, Barton County ranked 76th out of the 105 counties in Kansas, according to the fourth annual County Health Rankings, released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Johnson County was the healthiest while a group of Southeast Kansas counties remain among the least healthy in the state, the survey noted. Area counties fell like this: Ellsworth, 23; Rush, 49; Hodgeman, 51; Ness, 60; Rice, 63; Russell, 73; Barton, 76; Stafford, 82; Pawnee, 83; and Edwards, 92.
“It’s a good indicator of where we sit with the rest of the state,” said Barton County Health Director Lily Akings. “We were worse than average in some areas and better than average in others.”
The County Health Rankings rank nearly every county in all 50 states according to their summary measures of health outcomes and health factors. Among these are high school graduation rates, obesity, smoking, and family and social support.
“There are issues we need to improve upon,” Akings said. Barton County faces these same problems as well as an aging population.
“We are aware of them and are working on them,” she said. But, “there are challenges.”
Officials and community-based groups are involved in finding ways to increase access to health foods and exercise. The county is doing “fair to good” in dealing with these shortfalls, she said, adding Barton County ranked about the same last year.
However, “poverty is the number one public health problem,” Akings said. With the national average of children living in poverty being 14 percent and the state average being 19 percent, Barton County’s figure is 23 percent.
Akings said if she could wave a magic wand, she would bring about the economic development needed to raise the average wage in the county. “But, that’s not always as simple as it sounds.”
None the less, “we are changing and we are growing,” she said. “We’re right in there.”
According to the 2013 rankings, the five healthiest counties in Kansas out of the 105, starting with most healthy, are Johnson, Riley, Stevens, Pottawatomie and Ellis. The five counties in the poorest health, starting with least healthy, are Woodson, Elk, Chautauqua, Wyandotte and Cherokee. Four of the five least-healthy counties are located in Southeast Kansas. Greeley, Wallace and Stanton counties are not ranked because of insufficient data.
Nationally, the data revealed that unhealthy counties have more than twice the rate of premature deaths as healthy ones and childhood poverty rates are twice as high in unhealthy counties. The Kansas data showed similar results. Residents of the five least-healthy Kansas counties, when compared with their counterparts in the five healthiest counties, are more likely to die prematurely, report fair to poor health and be unemployed. Children in the five lowest-ranked counties are more likely to live in poverty and single-parent households than children in the five highest-ranked counties.
“This year’s report shows, once again, that where people live, work, learn and play has profound effects on how healthy they are,” said Gianfranco Pezzino, senior fellow and strategy team leader at the Kansas Health Institute. “A variety of socioeconomic and behavioral factors influence our health. Many of these factors change slowly over time. However, these factors are probably the most important things we need to change if we want to assure our communities a healthy future.”
The rankings include a county snapshot with a color-coded map comparing each county’s overall health ranking. Also, new county-level trend graphs track changes over time for several of the measures, including children in poverty, unemployment and quality of care.
“We all have a stake in creating a healthier community and no single sector alone can tackle the health challenges in any given community,” said Patrick Remington, co-director of the County Health Rankings project and professor and associate dean at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Collaboration is critical. The rankings are sparking action all over the country as people from all sectors join forces to create new possibilities in health - county by county.”
In Kansas the rankings prompted some counties that ranked low in previous years to undertake initiatives to improve the health of their citizens. The initiative in Wyandotte County - Healthy Communities Wyandotte - is perhaps the most notable. In Southeast Kansas, an effort known as Project 17 aims to improve the region’s quality of life and economic opportunities.
The rankings are one part of the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program. Communities are taking information from the County Health Rankings and using the County Health Roadmaps to build connections with local and national partners to improve health. Today marks the release of the call for applications for the 2014 RWJF Roadmaps to Health Prize, which honors outstanding community partnerships that are helping people live healthier lives. To learn more about this year’s winning communities or get information about becoming one, visit www.countyhealthrankings.org.