When Jerry Jones found out that Wyandotte County was no longer last in a ranking of Kansas counties’ health outcomes, it wasn’t cause for celebration.
The county only moved up one spot among the 102 ranked, and Jones, the executive director of the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County, said his heart sank for the residents of Labette County in southeast Kansas who now occupy the bottom spot.
“When I saw we were 101st out of 102, I didn’t do a happy dance,” Jones said. “Life is hard there. I think that’s just the reality for a lot of Kansans: Life is really hard.”
Johnson County leads Kansas and Platte County leads Missouri in the rankings, which are compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
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They’re based on more than a dozen factors, but since they began in Wisconsin in 2003 counties with socioeconomic advantages in things like income and education have dominated the health outcome measures like life expectancy and quality of life.
“We do know that socio-economics and social determinants of health are a big factor in longevity,” said Dan Luebbert, the assistant director of the Platte County Health Department.
Platte County passed St. Charles County this year for the overall top spot in Missouri on the strength of its low rate of premature deaths and low number of poor physical and mental health days each month as reported by residents. The county also scored well below the state average in sexually transmitted infections and teen births.
The one red flag for Platte County came in its ratio of mental health providers to residents, which was far worse than the state as a whole.
Mary Jo Vernon, the director of the county health department, said she’s aware of the problem and for the last six months the department has partnered with Tri-County Mental Health Services to bring in a therapist to provide in-house counseling four days a week. But Tri-County, which serves Platte, Clay and Ray counties, is stretched thin due to a regionwide shortage of mental health professionals.
“They struggle to obtain employees like psychiatrists and advanced practice folks in the arena of mental health due to that shortage,” Vernon said. “There’s just a need for increased service providers in mental health.”
Clay County ranked No. 3 in Missouri in health outcomes and Cass County came in at No. 6. Jackson County moved up from No. 74 to No. 61 out of 115 ranked.
In Kansas, Johnson County topped the health outcomes rankings for the second straight year. Johnson and Riley County have traded the top spot every year since 2011.
Lougene Marsh, the director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, said credit is due to community groups and business leaders as well as health care professionals.
“We must continue this great work of building a healthier, more equitable community so everyone can reach their greatest health potential,” Marsh said in a prepared statement.
Douglas County was No. 7 and Leavenworth County was No. 19.
Johnson County got good marks in every category except environmental factors. A worsening air pollution ranking dropped it from 38th last year to 82nd in that measure.
Gianfranco Pezzino, a researcher with the Kansas Health Institute in Topeka, said the large fluctuation may be due in part to limited air quality data.
“But based on the limited amount of information we have, definitely you have an air quality problem in the county,” Pezzino said, adding that most of the pollution is due to vehicle traffic.
There’s lag time in the data reporting as well, Pezzino said, so the rankings are more useful for analyzing multi-year trends than trying to discern current conditions on the ground.
Jones said Wyandotte County’s efforts to reduce its uninsured rate have been working and that will be reflected in future rankings as the data catches up.
Though the county is still struggling in areas like sexually transmitted infections, it ranked well above the state average in percentage of residents who have access to exercise areas like parks.
A group of community leaders called Healthy Communities Wyandotte was formed to focus on improving a range of health metrics after the county placed last in the rankings in 2009. The county improved to 94th in 2015 before dropping back to the bottom last year.
Mark Wiebe, a spokesman for Healthy Communities Wyandotte, said the county trending in the right direction in measures like life expectancy, adult obesity and teen births, even if the rankings might not show it.
“The rankings are relative to other communities, other counties,” Wiebe said. “When we compare ourselves to ourselves, we feel like you get a better picture of what’s going on.”