Apr 4 2012
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County Health Calculator 2.0: Q&A With Steven Woolf

WOOLF_S Steven Woolf, director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Human Needs

In conjunction with the third release of the County Health Rankings, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Human Needs have released an updated version of the County Health Calculator, an interactive, online app that illustrates the connection between social factors and health. The Calculator shows the impact that various social factors have on health and well-being, for U.S. states or counties. A key function of the Calculator is the ability to calculate how many premature deaths could be avoided in communities if more people had the better health that is so strongly linked with more education and higher income.

For example, if adults in Wyandotte, Kansas—where 39 percent have some college education—had the same education levels as the top county in the state— Johnson County at 78 percent—more than one out of three deaths (38 percent) could be averted per year.

This year, the County Health Calculator has been updated with additional features. NewPublicHealth spoke with Steven Woolf, MD, director of the Center for Human Needs and the lead designer of the County Health Calculator, about Version 2.0.

>>Read the full NewPublicHealth series on the launch of the 2012 County Health Rankings.

NewPublicHealth: What has been added to the new version of the calculator?

Steven Woolf: This is an upgraded version with new features. With the old calculator, users could pick any county or state of interest and see the effects of education and income on death rates in the area. The upgraded version will let people look not only at those factors but also on the effects on diabetes and on medical spending for diabetes.

NPH: How did you decide what changes to make to this calculator?

Steven Woolf: Our work up until this point has focused on mortality, which is obviously extremely important. But many Americans are struggling with chronic diseases. The prevalence of chronic diseases is increasing dramatically in this country, and for policy-makers there is great concern because of its impact on the health care system and on the escalating cost of medical care. So, part of our message is that dealing with these social policies about our economic well-being and the education of our children actually has direct ties to health care policy and economic policy.

NPH: How has the original calculator been received and how widely has it been used to help communities to both understand and also to look at the implications of the County Health Rankings?

Steven Woolf: The calculator has been an effective tool to help make the case with policy-makers and the general public in helping to connect the dots and draw the linkage between policy issues that seem unrelated to health care and their direct linkage to health implications that affect individuals and families and the people that pay for health care. So, we were excited by the reaction it received but wanted to expand its usefulness and try to make these additional points.

NPH: What do you think the impact will be of the additional points that you’ve put into it?

Steven Woolf: I think it draws in an audience that is concerned about some of these other health policy priorities. Obviously, the original tool, which talked about avertable deaths, has brought relevance to everybody. None of us wants to live a shorter life than possible, but this also helps underscore the fact that these social conditions affect our health and wellbeing. We’re hoping that people will broaden the message on their own and realize that just as these factors affect the health of older adults with diabetes, they similarly affect the health of children, adolescents, and young people. The social and economic conditions that we’re measuring, such as attendance of college and income, are often established early in life, and our efforts to try to improve the social and economic wellbeing of young people are going to translate directly into health benefits and reduced spending.

NPH: What else has been added to the enhanced version of the County Health Calculator?

Steven Woolf: The updated version will be more directly hooked in with social media such as Facebook and Twitter and enable users to share results with colleagues and friends for particular estimates they have obtained for a county of interest or a state of interest. And there is a widget that has been developed that will allow bloggers, newspapers and other media to place the widget on their site.

NPH: Who do you hope will be using this calculator?

Steven Woolf: We have four target audiences. One is the big one, the American public. We think it’s important for the American public to have a greater awareness of the importance of these policies. They already are concerned about education and income. No one needs to remind our society about that, but not everybody sees the connection to health.

The next is the news media that disseminate information to the public, and policy-makers both at the national level and the state and local level. They are struggling with questions about how much to spend on education, what to do about jobs and unemployment, and helping them to have a greater awareness of how these decisions do have a linkage to health. Finally, we want to reach advocacy organizations who are trying to make their case for more support for educating our children or a greater investment in creating job and economic opportunities for American families to help remind them that among the various benefits of those policies is actually an improvement in health and lowered medical spending.y7

NPH: What might be enhancements we’d see in the next version of the calculator?

Steven Woolf: I think probably one of our first priorities on the variable side is to look at health behaviors and risk factors like obesity and how changing the rates of those at the county or state level would translate into improved health outcomes, longer lives and reduced spending. And we’re also interested in looking at the impact on health for younger people as well.

>>Check out the updated County Health Calculator.

Tags: Healthy communities, Social determinants of health, Education level, County Health Rankings, Q&A, Technology