County Health Rankings & Roadmaps Take on Capitol Hill

May 3, 2012, 3:39 PM, Posted by

Congressional staffers bent over iPads to check the health of their constituents in their home counties yesterday at a Capitol Hill briefing on the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The 2012Rankings were released last month, and present health measures for nearly every county in the United States. The County Health Rankings illustrate what makes people sick or healthy and the County Health Roadmaps, a new project introduced this year, show what can be done to create healthier places to live, learn, work and play. The Rankings measures include employment, safe places to exercise, education levels and access to healthy foods. New measures this year include density of fast food restaurants in counties and levels of physical activity among residents.

“For all the measures we use we have good news and bad news,” said Patrick Remington, MD, MPH, associate dean at the University Of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and an architect of the County Health Rankings. “We’re living longer, but the quality of life may be going down. Teen birth rates are down, but there has been an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. There is less violent crime, but children living in poverty are increasing.” Said Remington: “As a physician, I think the unique aspect of the Rankings is that it puts in one place the overall health of the community, which lets us know how we’re doing and then dig deeper on why some counties are performing well, and some not as good as could be.”

It’s clear that better health is going to take a lot of work, however giving people information about their counties has mobilized leaders, said Michelle Larkin, JD, MS, RN, assistant vice president and deputy director of the Foundation’s Health Group and a speaker at the briefing. “To improve health we have to engage leaders across the sectors in our community,” said Larkin. “That’s where the Roadmaps come in. They are actions that counties are taking to respond to what they see in the Rankings data.”

Larkin offered the example of Columbia, Missouri, where leaders are advocating for improved public transit, which impacts the health of a community by enabling low income residents to get to work, to grocery stores to access healthy foods and to get to the doctor’s office especially if they are dealing with chronic health conditions.

Chip Johnson, mayor of Hernando, Mississippi, talked about the cost savings his city received from their health insurer because of wellness opportunities that have been introduced. The mayor also cited a farmer’s market which is close to the city’s poorest neighborhood and has generated significant income for farmers selling produce. Next up: tackling air quality by working with the mayor of Memphis, their neighbor city.

“We’re only five percent of the way there but the policies we’re putting in place will make that happen,” said Mayor Johnson, whose city was ranked first overall in the 2012 County Health Rankings. “We need to make our cities and towns the healthiest places they can be.”

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