Johnson County ranks healthiest in Kansas and Wyandotte County is the next to the least healthiest county in the state, according to the eighth annual County Health Rankings, released earlier this month by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Why is there so much difference in the health of residents in one county compared to other counties in some states?

The local level data makes it clear that good health is influenced by many factors beyond medical care including housing, education, jobs, access to healthy foods, and more. This report looks at and ranks each county in two major categories: Health Outcome and Health Factors.

Health Outcomes

This measure looks at two major factors: Length of life and quality of life. Length of life looked at only one factor, premature deaths, or how many people die before the age of 75. Quality of life looks at several factors including: the number of people who consider themselves in poor health, the number of low birth weight babies, the number of days people rate themselves in poor physical and poor mental health. Poor physical health days is the average number of days a county’s adult respondent report that their physical health was not good.

On average 15% of Kansans rated themselves in fair or poor health. In Wyandotte County, which ranked worse in the state in this measure, 22% of the county’s residents reported themselves in poor to fair health compared to 9% in Johnson County that ranked first in this factor in Kansas.

A decrease in length of life, measured exclusively in this study by premature deaths, is being fueled nationally by an increase in deaths among 15 to 44 year olds. From 2014 to 2015, 85% of the increase in premature deaths can be attributed to a swift increase in deaths among these younger populations. The Rankings Key Findings report reveals that while myriad issues contributed to the rise, the drug overdose epidemic is the leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year olds and is a clear driver of this trend. Drug deaths are also accelerating among 15- to 24- year olds, but nearly three times as many people in this age group die by homicide, suicide, or in motor vehicle crashes.

Health Factors

Health is influenced by every aspect of how and where we live. Access to affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, job training programs and quality early childhood education are examples of important changes that can put people on a path to a healthier life even more than access to medical care. But access to these opportunities varies county to county. This limits choices and makes it hard to be healthy.

Under this study some factors are easy for individuals to control like health factors, while others factors can be impacted by local government, but many of the factors are difficult to move, for example, clinical care. Clinical care is reported as a ratio of the number of individuals served by one doctor, dentist and mental health care provider in the county.

Health factors also measure social and economic factors that impact health including factors such as: education level obtained by the county’s residents, the number of children living in poverty, unemployment rates, the number of children living in single parent households and the violent crime rate.

Kansas violent crime rates were relatively high compared to the top performing areas in the country, (top 10 percentile) which reported just 62 violent crimes per 100,000 population. In the counties we tracked, Sedgwick County had a violent crime rate of 622, Wyandotte came in at 602, Geary at 452 and Shawnee at 440 reported violent crimes per 100,000 population. 

Changes that individuals could most impact were reported under health behaviors, which looked at nine factors: smoking, adult obesity, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, access to exercise opportunities, alcohol impaired driving and food environment index.

Some of the factors of major concern in Kansas were adult obesity, teen pregnancy rates and the rate of sexually transmitted diseases. On average, the rate of adult obesity in Kansas was 26%. Counties we tracked that came in high were: Wyandotte at 36%, Reno at 36%, Saline at 35%, Geary at 33%, and Shawnee at 33%.

Teen birth rate is measured as the number of births to females ages 15-19 in the seven year time frame per 1,000 females in a county. The top performers nationally (top 10th percentile) came in at 17 births per 1000. Kansas’ average was 36 births per 1000. Counties we tracked with high rates were: Wyandotte at 69, Sedgwick at 47, and Shawnee at 44.

However, one of the most alarming figures in Kansas was the rate of sexually transmitted diseases. This statistic only looked at the cases of chlamydia per 100,000 population. Top performers across the country were 145, Kansas averaged 384 cases per 100,000. Counties we tracked with large numbers were: Wyandotte at 726, Riley at 594, Geary at 580, Sedgwick at 539, Shawnee at 501, Saline at 427, and Johnson at 384.

The only measure where Johnson County did not come in number one was Physical Environment. This measure looks at air pollution, percent of people commuting to work by themselves, the average length of commute to work and water quality. A suburban county, Johnson County was hit hard here because of the percentage of residents driving more than 30 minutes to work and the high percentage of those commuting by themselves. On average, 23% of Johnson County residents drive more than 30 minutes to work and 86% commute alone. Kansas averages were 20% commuting more than 30 minutes and 80% commuting alone.

Johnson County also got hits for high air pollution rate.

Sedgwick County ranked relatively low in physical environment, despite having a low commute time. The county and several others were dinged because at least one community water system in the county received at least one health-based violation during the study time frame.

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