Focus and Health Care

2014 health rankings used for comparison and assessment

April 4, 2014
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Counties across the country got health checkups recently, and those in West Michigan seem to be in pretty good shape.

The fifth edition of the nationwide effort to raise awareness of the overall health of a county was released March 26.

Calculating composite scores in eight categories, the 2014 County Health Rankings rates each county based on factors that influence health, and positions them relative to other counties within the same state.

The annual report is conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in New Jersey dedicated to improving health and health care for Americans, and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, the school of medicine and public health in Wisconsin. 

According to the 2014 Michigan Rankings report, the purpose is to help counties understand what influences residents’ health and how those measurements correspond to longevity. Measuring indicators such as access to health food, smoking rates, obesity and birth rates, the report provides county-to-county comparisons within a state, according to the press release. 

Paul Brand, president of Alliance for Health in Grand Rapids, said the measurement system offers a significant opportunity. “Before these rankings, we didn’t really have good comparative metrics county to county.”

Through identifying strengths and weaknesses in overall health in a county, the rankings are often used by health care providers, organizations in the community, business leaders, policymakers and government agencies to implement new initiatives aimed at improving well-being. 

Kristina Wieghmink, communications specialist at the Department of Public Health in Ottawa County, said in a written statement that the department and several community health partners use the report to identify what factors influence health and as motivation to promote innovative ways to build a culture of health.

In Michigan, Ottawa County was ranked first for health outcomes and second for health factors. The health outcomes composite looks at length of life and quality of life indicators, such as premature death, low birth weight and poor physical health days. Health factors are broken down into four subcategories: health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment. Some of the specific indicators include: physical inactivity, alcohol-impaired driving deaths, teen births, percentage of uninsured residents, children in poverty and air pollution.

Weighmink said it was the collaborative effort of a lot of different people and different factors that resulted in the high ranking for the county.

“One thing I hear often from different individuals or community partners that we work with is that Ottawa County is a very collaborative and invested community,” said Weighmink. 

Kent County held on to its previous rank of 16th for 2014 health outcomes, which is six places higher than its debut in 2010. In terms of health factors, Kent County was ranked 14th, an improvement from 2012 at 19th and 2013 at 15th place.

Teresa Branson, deputy administrative health officer at Kent County Health Department, said the department was pleased the county hadn’t fallen in ranking.

“We also recognized that we can really monitor some of those health outcomes and health factors to make improvements,” said Branson.

According to Branson, several areas for improvement included: obesity, adult heavy drinking, access to affordable and healthy food, children living in poverty and teen births. Examples of county initiatives intended to improve health and reduce adverse risks for individuals, include Kent County Health Connect and Rethink Drinks. Kent County Health Connect is a program supported by community organizations aimed at promoting healthy eating, active living, tobacco-free living and clinical preventive services. Rethink Drinks is a campaign to raise awareness of drinking responsibly.

Brand said although Kent County has strong rankings in clinical care and significant resources to help people restore their health, there needs to be a shift toward health management.

“It’s really about working with our citizenry about the choices we make every day,” said Brand. “What we don’t do — we don’t work together yet on a common agenda toward health.” 

When comparing Ottawa County to its neighboring Kent County, Weighmink said the rankings reflect differently because the counties are distinctive, despite parallel approaches to health care. 

“We are similar in many ways where we deal with a lot of the same health issues, but yet our populations are a little different,” said Weighmink. “Kent County tends to be a bit more urban and Ottawa County is a bit more rural, so Kent County has more people to service in health care.” 

Branson said Ottawa County should be commended for the work being done, but when comparing it to Kent County, population size and other contributing factors are important to keep in mind. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Kent County had a population of more than 600,000 in 2010, while Ottawa County’s population was less than 265,000.

“Probably we’ll see not just health disparities but racial and economic,” said Branson. “When we looked at the data in health rankings in comparison with other counties of similar size, they weren’t really doing better than Kent.” 

Muskegon County ranked 67th for 2014 health outcomes, an improvement from its 69th place in 2013. Although the county was ranked 65th for overall health factors, it is ranked fifth for clinical care. According to Brand, the two-place improvement in rankings for health outcomes is a significant move forward and a trend in the right direction. 

“Even the best ranked county in the state is getting better,” said Brand. “We have a set of metrics, a dashboard if you will, which gives us all a target to shoot at.”

The status of Muskegon County drew a lot of attention in the earlier rankings, which prompted the 1 in 21 Healthy Muskegon County initiative, according to Brand. Led by the Muskegon Rotary Club and with involvement from partners in various sectors of the community, the initiative seeks to improve the health of residents to become the healthiest county in the state by 2021.

Allegan County was ranked ninth for health outcomes in 2014, which is an improvement from its 11th place rating in 2013. The southwestern county fell from ranking No. 21 in 2013 to No. 22 in 2014 for health factors.

The high percentage of residents driving alone for a long commute contributed to ranking 58th for physical environment for Allegan County. The other three West Michigan counties also were ranked low in the physical environment category, which takes into account air and water quality, and housing and transportation. Kent County ranked 48th, Ottawa County ranked 40th, and Muskegon County ranked 54th out of 82 counties in Michigan.

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