By Jim McLean, KHI News Service
TOPEKA, KAN. — Wyandotte County and a cluster of counties in the southeast corner of the state continue to rank among the least healthy places to live in Kansas, according to a report released today by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Six of the 10 counties at the bottom of the rankings are in southeast Kansas: Woodson, Elk, Chautauqua, Cherokee, Montgomery and Labette.
“That really comes as no surprise,” said Gianfranco Pezzino, a physician who oversees public health research at the Kansas Health Institute, which coordinates the release of the Kansas rankings.
The institute also is the parent organization of the KHI News Service.
The health rankings are evidence of the extent to which social and environmental factors – known as social determinants – affect health. 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 of people without health insurance and higher rates of teen pregnancy.
Wyandotte County is another example of the power of social determinants, Pezzino said. It consistently occupies a spot near the bottom of the health rankings while Johnson County, its neighbor directly to the south, always ranks at or near the top. 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. Then Mayor Joe Reardon gained national attention for leading the health-improvement effort.
“We’re really holistically looking at the health in our community. And I think it’s the first time we’ve ever done that,” Reardon said in a 2011 interview.
Mark Holland, Reardon’s successor in the mayor’s office, has maintained the city’s commitment to the initiative.
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.”
The Wisconsin Population Health Institute produces the health rankings for all 50 states with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The 2014 Kansas report ranks the health of 98 of the state’s 105 counties. There was insufficient data in those not included.