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Latest health rankings include wide variation in local counties

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Jim McLean — KHI News Service

The Kansas side of the metropolitan area continues to be a tale of two cities, so to speak, in terms of population health.

In this year’s state-by-state county health rankings, released Wednesday, Wyandotte County continued to rank near the bottom (96th out of the 98 ranked) while neighboring Johnson County repeated its No. 1 status from a year ago.

This is the fifth year for the County Health Rankings, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The report compares counties using 29 factors that impact health, including smoking, high school graduation rates, unemployment, physical inactivity and access to healthy foods.

Coordination of the Kansas data comes through the Kansas Health Institute.

Social determinants

The health rankings are evidence of the extent to which social and environmental factors — known as social determinants — affect health, said Gianfranco Pezzino, a physician who oversees public health research at the Kansas Health Institute.

Like the difference between Johnson and Wyandotte counties, the Missouri side of the metropolitan area reflects similar disparities. The Missouri data includes all the state’s 115 counties. Local rankings include:

  • Cass – 15

  • Clay – 12

  • Jackson – 75

  • Lafayette – 10

  • Platte – 4

In Kansas, six of the 10 counties at the bottom of the rankings are in southeast Kansas: Woodson, Elk, Chautauqua, Cherokee, Montgomery and Labette.

All of the southeast Kansas counties that rank among the bottom 10 have child poverty and unemployment rates that are significantly higher than the state average. They also generally have higher rates of people without health insurance and higher rates of teen pregnancy.

A county border

Wyandotte County also is another example of the power of social determinants, Pezzino said, as indicated by its performance relative to Johnson County. Residents of both counties have proximity to the same health care providers.

“Yet the difference (in health) couldn’t be bigger,” Pezzino said.

The reason is partially due to the fact that more residents of Wyandotte County are uninsured and therefore less able to get regular preventive care. But wide disparities in social and economic indicators are bigger reasons for the counties’ polar opposite rankings, Pezzino said.

Alarmed by their county’s low ranking in the first report released in 2009, political and public health leaders in Wyandotte County started formulating a plan to address a range of contributing social factors.

Despite the apparent lack of progress, Pezzino said people spearheading the effort in Wyandotte County shouldn’t be discouraged.

“These things really take time, at least a generation,” Pezzino said. “I’m very confident the results will come.”

Major Funding for Health coverage on KCPT provided by Assurant Employee Benefits and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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