by Nina Roumell

For the past 5 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute have partnered to produce the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program. The goal of the program is to collect and use data pertaining to health outcomes and health factors to grow and build healthy communities. 

Health factors are a projection of how healthy a county will be in the future and quantify health behaviors, clinical care, social & economic factors, and physical environment. In contrast, health outcomes quantify how healthy a county is now and measure length of life and quality of life. RWJF designs a “Roadmap” based on these data to show what a county can do to become a healthier community.

Health outcome disparities are not only present on a national level but between neighboring counties here in Colorado. Lake County was ranked 48th and is surrounded by Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, and Chaffee Counties ranked 5th, 3rd, 2nd, and 15th respectively. Similarly, La Plata was ranked 6th and is surrounded by Dolores, Montezuma, and Archuleta, ranked 38th, 43rd, and 34th respectively. Although there are vast differences in health outcomes between counties, a map of Colorado shows north central Colorado with the best health outcome performances and the southeast experiencing the lowest ranking.  

Although counties are ranked by state, the data also draw a national picture of health and existing trends. The rate of preventable hospital stays decreased by 20% from 2003 to 2011. Physical inactivity and smoking rates have also been declining. America appears to be moving in a healthier direction as a whole, but there remain startling health disparities. The least healthy counties have twice the premature death rates (years of life lost before age 75), twice as many children living in poverty, and twice as many teen births than the healthiest counties.

A color-coded map ranking counties’ health factors in Colorado looks very similar to that of health outcomes but also shows some hopeful trends. Some counties with a poor health outcome ranking performed better in health factors – suggesting that their health outcome will improve in future years.  For example, Sedgwick County was ranked 41st in health outcomes but 30th in health factors. Directly South of Sedgwick County,  Phillips County was ranked 36th for outcomes but 23rd for health factors. Counties in Colorado are making great strides to build a culture of health, but there are ways to continue to improve.

We need to work together to ensure all Coloradans have a healthy place to work, play, and enjoy. The County Health Rankings are only helpful if we use them as a tool to better understand and improve the health of our communities.  Check out the Roadmaps to see what you can do to improve your county’s ranking and build a healthier community.

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