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New health rankings show how counties stack up

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WILLMAR — If you live in Kandiyohi County, you’re in the top tier of Minnesota counties when it comes to quality of medical care and overall quality of life.

But Meeker County, just next door, has one of the region’s best high school graduation rates, while Swift County has the lowest rate of violent crime and injury-related deaths.

New health rankings show how counties stack up when it comes to the many factors that shape overall health, from socioeconomics to the physical environment.

The rankings, released Wednesday, are meant to give communities a starting point for talking about what they can do to promote physical activity, improve the food environment, increase access to dental care, lower the number of children living in poverty and more.

Liz Auch, administrator of Countryside Public Health, calls it a snapshot that can help local decision-makers identify priorities for health.

“It’s another tool you put into your system and look at and say, ‘What do you see?’ You can go back to communities and talk to your stakeholders,” she said.

The rankings, which are done for virtually every county in the United States, are issued annually as a collaborative project by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This is the report’s fifth year.

Counties are being urged to use the information to spark conversation about creating more opportunities for everyone to be healthy.

“It helps your citizens know it isn’t just medical care that’ll help overall health,” Auch said. “Your environment makes a difference. What kind of social behaviors and decisions are people making? What kinds of foods are we serving? It all ties in, every single piece.”

Local agencies said the rankings reinforce what they’ve seen in their own assessments.

Kandiyohi County, for instance, has one of the region’s lowest unemployment rates “but yet we still have people living in poverty,” said Renee Nolting, executive director of the United Way of West Central Minnesota.

High school graduation rates in Kandiyohi County are below the state average and among the lowest in the region, she pointed out. And access to dental care is a significant issue in some counties such as Swift and Chippewa, where there’s a shortage of dental professionals.

The United Way of West Central Minnesota has placed health and education at the top of its priority list, Nolting said. “All of these are things of concern.”

Although direct medical care accounts far and away for the largest share of health-related spending in the U.S., health policy experts say this only represents about 10 percent of the factors that influence health overall. The biggest share is attributed to socioeconomics; the second largest, to health behaviors.

Where people live matters to their health, Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota Health Commissioner, said in a statement Wednesday issued by the Minnesota Department of Health.

“The rankings remind us that we live in communities, and that if our community is healthy, we’re more likely to be healthy ourselves,” he said.

Data for the rankings were collected from several sources, among them the National Center for Health Statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American Community Survey and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. The authors of the report looked at a wide range of social, economic, environmental and health-system indicators, from the number of health providers per capita to the quality of housing and drinking water, the number of teen births and rates of tobacco use, excessive drinking and adult obesity.

A variety of efforts are already happening around the region to promote better community health.

Of the 47 entities currently seeking funds from the United Way of West Central Minnesota, the majority are in education, Nolting said.

Fresh funding from the Minnesota Statewide Health Improvement Program has re-energized public health departments and their efforts to develop long-term, sustainable policy and environmental changes that support community health.

Issues are often multi-layered and may not lend themselves to a single solution, Auch pointed out. When her department conducted a public survey, the leading barrier to exercise turned out to be the cost of a fitness center membership — but lack of personal willpower was close behind, she said.

“You can’t really change behavior in a day,” Auch said. “But addressing all of those will provide opportunities for people to be healthier.”

Area counties' health rankings

Health outcomes Health outcomes represent how healthy a county is. Carver County ranked No. 1 in Minnesota. Mahnomen County was last.

6. Yellow Medicine

7. Redwood

16. Kandiyohi

19. Stearns

20. Lac qui Parle

25. Meeker

39. Swift

47. Chippewa

60. Pope

81. Renville

Health factors Health factors represent influences on the health of a county. Olmsted County was No. 1. Mahnomen County was last.

16. Stearns

21. Pope

25. Lac qui Parle

47. Yellow Medicine

55. Swift

61. Kandiyohi

64. Renville

65. Redwood

66. Meeker

71. Chippewa

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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