Health Study Highlights Local Differences

By Peter Sanftman
Peter Sanftman
Peter Sanftman
February 18, 2010 Updated: October 1, 2015
People buy produce at a New York City market in this file photo. A report says access to fresh fruits and vegetables over fast food may be a factor in community health statistics.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People buy produce at a New York City market in this file photo. A report says access to fresh fruits and vegetables over fast food may be a factor in community health statistics. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Working on improving community health—for the first time, health and health risk data is available for each county in all 50 states due to a new ranking released on Feb. 17 by the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at a briefing in Washington D.C.

This ranking is not only meant to provide statistical data on the average health of communities but also to help identify the reasons for the variations in local health of a community. Those responsible for the study hoped to help counties find their strengths and weaknesses in public health and to launch projects to close the existing gaps responsible for their varying health rates.

The results show that the average health of residents can vary greatly even between two counties that are right next to each other. This suggests that the average health rate in a county depends largely on local factors like infrastructure and social situations instead of on larger regional factors like environment or health insurance coverage.

"These rankings demonstrate that health happens where we live, learn, work, and play. And much of what influences how healthy we are and how long we live happens outside the doctor’s office,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In some cases the rating revealed data questioning the role of factors that are commonly believed to have a strong influence on average health. For example, Woods County, Oklahoma, ranked first in the state for overall health, while the county ranked 48th out of 77 on clinical care access and quality. Carbon County, Montana, ranked second in the state for overall health, but ranked low—39th out of 44—on factors related to the physical environment, such as air pollution, access to healthy foods, and liquor store density.

Communities with poor average health were often found to face multiple challenges like two or threefold higher rates of premature death, often from preventable conditions, and high rates of smoking and obesity along with high unemployment and poverty rates. Additionally, high numbers of liquor stores and fast-food outlets were found in such communities with fewer places to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

“All of us—health officials, government, and business leaders, educators, and media—must play a role in transforming our communities,” Lavizzo-Mourey said. "People, no matter where they live, should have the best possible opportunity to be healthy.”

The study can be found here: http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/