New County Health Rankings Highlight Factors That Influence Health

Provide Opportunities for Improving Community Health

ALBANY, NY (Feb. 17, 2010) – New York's counties are ranked on select health outcomes and health factors in a new report issued today by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The report ranks counties in New York and other states on length of life, quality of life, health behaviors, health care access and quality, social and economic factors, and physical environment.

"I thank RWJF and the University of Wisconsin for their efforts to bring national attention to community health," said State Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, M.D. "But we must use the rankings as an opportunity for improvement, not as a blame game. New York's counties have wide-ranging geographic and social differences, with many economic factors beyond the immediate control of those devoted to improving health. These rankings will be used in conjunction with a large body of health data the State Health Department already collects and shares with counties to help guide and achieve a long-term vision for improved health in New York's communities."

"While no single report can adequately capture the health of county residents, the RWJF/University of Wisconsin report provides a snapshot of community health that will help direct future public health initiatives at the local level," said Cynthia Morrow, MD, MPH, Onondaga County Commissioner of Health and President of the New York State Association of County Health Officials (NYSACHO). "Local health departments across the state are already engaging hospitals, local schools, businesses, day care centers, parks and recreation, and other community partners in these efforts because community health is everyone's responsibility."

Since 1986, New York State has required a separate community health assessment process, and the State Health Department (DOH) annually issues statewide and county specific data on over 100 public health indicators, including death rates and hospitalization rates from many causes, birth-related indicators such as infant mortality rates, percent of births that are low birth-weight or premature, and information on health behaviors such as percent of adults who are obese or current smokers. These data are available on the DOH website at http://www.nyhealth.gov/statistics/chac/

Since 2008 New York's counties and community partners have also been engaged in efforts to improve community health in connection with New York's Prevention Agenda Toward the Healthiest State. The Prevention Agenda sets goals for 2013 for the state and shows where each county is with regard to meeting the state goal. These data are available at: www.nyhealth.gov/prevention/prevention_agenda/indicator_map.htm. See http://www.nyhealth.gov/prevention/prevention_agenda/ for an overall description of the Prevention Agenda initiative.

In the RWJF/University of Wisconsin county health rankings report, researchers combined five measures to develop a single score to rank counties on the level of overall health or "health outcomes:"

  • The rate of premature death (people dying before age 75);
  • The percent of people who report being in fair or poor health;
  • The number of days people report being in poor physical health;
  • The number of days people report being in poor mental health; and,
  • The rate of low birth-weight infants.

The report also combined another set of 23 factors that affect New Yorkers' health within four categories to develop a second score by which counties are ranked:

  • Health behaviors
    Includes measures of smoking, diet and exercise, alcohol use, and risky sex behavior.
    Clinical care
    Includes measures of access to health care and quality of care.
    Social and economic factors
    Include measures of education, employment, income, family/social support, and community safety.
    Physical environment
    Includes measures of environmental quality and the built environment, such as access to sidewalks, park paths, recreational facilities, etc.

Among the many health factors the researchers looked at were rates of adult obesity, a major concern in New York State. "Our own data show that 60 percent of New York adults and one-third of children are obese or overweight," said Commissioner Daines. "We are especially targeting the causes of obesity and overweight because they exact a terrible toll on New Yorkers' quality of life by increasing their risk for diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and many disabling conditions."

Obesity and overweight also exact a high economic toll, costing New Yorkers approximately $8 billion annually for the care and treatment of obesity-related health conditions. Among the obesity prevention measures under consideration in New York is a proposed tax on beverages containing large amounts of added sugar because studies have identified a strong link between obesity and the overconsumption of sugared beverages. The goal of increasing the price of sugared beverages is to encourage New Yorkers' to choose less expensive, healthier alternatives such as water, low-fat milk and diet soda.

"The RWJF/University of Wisconsin rankings demonstrate that health happens where we live, learn, work, and play," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the RWJF. "Much of what influences how healthy we are and how long we live happens outside the doctor's office. We hope the County Health Rankings spur all sectors – government, business, community and faith-based groups, education and public health – to work together on solutions that address barriers to good health and help all Americans lead healthier lives."

Patrick Remington, MD, MPH, Associate Dean for Public Health, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said: "It's easier for people to lead a healthy lifestyle when they live in a healthy community – such as one that has expanded early childhood education, enacted smoke-free laws, increased access to healthier foods, or created more opportunities for physical activity. We hope this report can mobilize community leaders to learn what is making their residents unhealthy and take action to invest in programs and policy changes that improve health."

The RWJF/University of Wisconsin county rankings report is available at www.countyhealthrankings.org.