Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Health agencies address county rankings

By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Central Michigan counties are taking action to improve their low scores on the statewide health rankings.

Gladwin ranked 77 and Clare ranked lowest out of 82 counties in a national study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Keewanaw County was not ranked.

And a Macomb County official said the rankings are helpful but ambiguous.

The study examined such factors as alcohol use, community safety, environmental quality and unsafe sex.

Mary Kushion, health officer at the Central Michigan District Health Department, said both counties have already started mobilizing to improve.

“We’ve taken it as a challenge and a call to action to want to make a difference,” Kushion said. “It’s like weighing in for the first time at Weight Watchers. This is the starting point, and it can only get better from here.”

Poor rankings often lead to the mobilization of resources in a community, said Jean Chabut, chief administrative officer of public health administration at the state Department of Community Health.

“Somebody’s got to be the worst,” Chabut said. “We don’t know how much of a difference there is between 81 and 82.”

The rankings also give counties a chance to focus on factors for which they received low scores, such as health behaviors or clinical care, even if they receive high rankings overall, Chabut said.

Kushion said more than 100 people attended the district department’s public health summit for Arenac, Clare, Gladwin, Isabella, Osceola and Roscommon counties last month. More than 40 attendees work in Clare, she said.

“Anytime you can have one media story and over 40 people in a community come in and want to spend the day improving their community’s health, I see that as a highlight,” Kushion said.

She is consolidating suggestions made at the summit and said the counties will use the next 12 months to begin improvements.

Forty percent of the national rankings are based on socio-economic factors. Clare and Gladwin both have high rates of unemployment, which was a weak spot in their rankings, Kushion said.

However, both counties ranked high for physical environment, with Gladwin third and Clare sixth.

“Both of them have good clean air, clean water and good natural physical environments,” Kushion said. “We’re looking at the suggestions to find ways to help people be out and about more in the community.”

She said health education also is a large component of the rankings, including factors such as exercise and diet education, college attendance and deterring teen pregnancy.

Because the rankings are based on a seven-year average of data, it will be difficult to make improvements by the 2011 study. However, she said she expects the counties to show progress in three or four years.

“The rankings are a snapshot in time and they have large margins of error,” Kushion said. “As long as we know we’re making improvements in the community now, I see that as a good thing.”

Gary White, interim deputy health officer at the Macomb County Public Health Department, said the rankings can be difficult to interpret because they don’t provide standards or accepted levels for any of the components.

“It’s useful information for an idea of where we are at, but we have no idea of areas we really need to improve,” White said. “If we need to improve access to healthy food, how much access to healthy food? What’s the standard?”

Macomb ranked 34 overall, ranking in the top 20 for health behaviors and social and economic factors but low for physical environment.

White said physical environment examines factors like air quality, access to quality foods and number of liquor stores, but doesn’t look much into clean water, something the county has been working to improve.

White said Macomb did well on social and economic factors because it has a low poverty level, high number of high school graduates and good access to health care.

“We’re the base of a lot of auto manufacturing so people have benefits,”

White said.

Livingston was the top-ranked county in the study.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: State Agencies

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