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Who's the healthiest? New report lists the top county in Minn.

WILLMAR -- By mid-morning Wednesday, the word was spreading in Madison that a new county-by-county ranking lists Lac qui Parle County as the healthiest in Minnesota.

"That's good news," enthused Maynard Meyer, executive director of the Madison Chamber of Commerce and general manager of KLQP Radio.

The rankings, for all 50 states in the U.S., were issued Wednesday by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

They offer a snapshot of people's health based on where they live, work and go to school. Analysts looked at multiple measures, ranging from the rate of teen pregnancies and low-weight births to poverty, education, self-reported health status and how many residents in each county were uninsured.

County public health agencies already track most of this information. But the report goes one step further by giving the data a geographic context, allowing counties to see how they fare compared to their neighbors.

"It's one more way to look at the data," said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health. "It is important for us to reflect on what is happening to the health in our communities."

Liz Auch, director of Countryside Public Health, described it as "a guide to move us forward." The agency provides public health services in Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties.

"I look at it as a road map for how am I doing in my counties," Auch said. "What are we doing well with our partners? What are our partners doing well? Where could we improve?"

This is the second year the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson have issued the national county-by-county rankings.

The rankings are based on four measures: the rate of county residents who die before age 75, the number of people who self-reported their health status as fair or poor, and the number of self-reported days of poor physical health and poor mental health.

The analysis also examined health factors, such as health-related behavior, clinical care, social and economic factors and the physical environment.

On these measures, Olmsted County was listed first. Beltrami was last.

What made Lac qui Parle County stand out? "Everybody will have their own theories," Meyer said.

He attributes much of it to the county's health care services and an increased countywide push on health promotion and education.

"We've got two good hospitals and a couple of good clinics and a lot of good personnel," he said.

Not long ago, Madison didn't have any fitness centers. Now there are two. When the city's Kiwanis Club met this week, the program was about tetanus.

"People obviously take their health seriously," Meyer said.

Auch said the county has a wellness committee that's actively looking for ways to promote better health among county residents. Child immunization rates are high and binge drinking rates are low.

It's difficult, however, to single out anything conclusive, Auch said. Sample sizes in many of the data categories were small, and in some cases weren't large enough to be included in the analysis.

Neighboring counties are doing similar work to promote community health yet didn't see an appreciable difference in their health status since the 2010 report, Auch said. "It's so hard to measure. It's a continual step forward."

Kandiyohi County fell within the top 30 percent of Minnesota counties on most of the measures but slipped in overall health status from 15th place last year to 29th this year.

"Things have shifted. It's gone in both directions," Stehn conceded. The most significant progress came in health-related behaviors, an indication that countywide efforts at policy and environmental change may be having a positive influence.

"We have quite an ability to have an impact on our health, both as individuals and as a society," Stehn said. "It is based a lot on what we do in our everyday lives and our behaviors."

The annual rankings enable counties to see how the trends unfold over time, she said. "I think it's important for us to continue to watch this data."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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