The County Health Rankings 2011: Mobilizing Action to Improve Health

Mar 30, 2011, 1:42 PM


Today’s release of the 2011 County Health Rankings marks the second year that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute have collaborated on a project to help counties see where they are doing well and where they are not so they can make changes to improve health.

The Rankings are the only project of its kind that measures the overall health of nearly each county in all 50 states on the multiple factors that influence health. By ranking counties on how healthy they are – and how healthy they can be – we hope to bring attention to the many things that affect health – from access to healthier foods, to the quality of the air we breathe, to the rates of high school graduation in our communities. But more importantly, we hope this information will mobilize everyone in a community, from mayors to business leaders to health care professionals to community advocates, to work together to take action to address their problems.

This year’s rankings represent an important step forward from last year. That’s because this year we have not only the vital measures—such as percentage of children under 5 living in poverty, rates of teen births, and the percentage of citizens in a county who smoke or who are obese—but we also have reports from the field of programs and policies that community leaders are putting in place to make their counties better places to live, learn, work, and play.

For example…

  • In Wyandotte County, Kansas, their low ranking led the Mayor and leaders from other sectors to examine their health problems from a much wider lens then previously. They already have put in place programs to promote early childhood education, disease prevention among at-risk groups, and healthier eating. Two new supermarkets, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, are now in poorer neighborhoods which had none last year, thanks to zoning and task waivers suggested by a new Task Force created as a result of the Rankings. And, as new roads are built or repaired, or sidewalks are added or fixed, city leaders now figure the effect these efforts have not only on improving the county but on improving the health of the people who live, learn, work and play there.
  • In one West Virginia county, the local pastor, after his county ranked low because of high rates of adult smoking and obesity, decided to start a church weight-loss program to make the connections between spiritual and physical health.
  • In Madison County, Tennessee, leaders are working on programs to improve youth health behaviors, including offering healthier food choices at school and promoting more physical activity.
  • And in North Carolina’s Columbus County, residents are learning how to eat smarter and move more.

What the activities are showing us is that the Rankings are helping to inform community leaders and leading nontraditional partners to come together to improve the health of their residents. And they are spurring action at many different levels.

We are learning about exciting ideas, innovations, and collaborations to improve health that are happening in communities across the country. It’s vitally important to help that movement grow and succeed.

That’s why today we also are announcing a new program called Mobilizing Action Toward Community Health, another collaboration between the Foundation and the University of Wisconsin. The goal is to encourage communities to identify their most pressing problems and work together on solutions that can improve health no matter where they live.

Just like an annual check-up, the Rankings take the pulse of a county to see whether there are areas that need work. They show us that even the healthiest counties have areas they can work on. And above all, they also show us that some of the most important things for health are those that are really beyond and outside of doctor’s office – that where we live, learn, work and play matters to our health.

The Rankings are a call to action for each one of us and our counties across the country. We’re looking forward to hearing your voices and mobilizing action toward community health!

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.