Wednesday, April 9, 2014

County officials say health rankings can be powerful tool

By MIKE SHERRY, Kansas Health Institute

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Bugging people to exercise may not be the best way to encourage healthy behaviors among local residents, according to panelists who came here to discuss recently released health rankings for Kansas counties.

More subtle approaches have worked in Allen, Sedgwick and Wyandotte counties, people from those communities said Monday at a forum held at Sporting Park, the home of Kansas City’s Major League Soccer team.

Simply providing a safe place to walk has been effective in promoting exercise in Allen County, said David Toland, director of Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit aimed at improving the quality of life in the county. Eighteen miles of new, local trails have been built in the past five years, he said.

“People don’t (use the trails) for health reasons necessarily,” Toland said, “maybe some do, but they are doing it because it feels good, because they like it.”

Different focus

Wyandotte County has shifted the emphasis of the Parks and Recreation Department from play to wellness, said Mark Holland, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.

That focus, Holland said, spurred the commission last year to earmark $6 million in casino-generated, municipal revenue to help build a community center near downtown Kansas City, Kan.

Holland and Toland were among the speakers at the forum, organized by the Kansas Health Institute and its partners, to discuss the annual County Health Rankings compiled by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The latest rankings, which are released annually, were released last month.

Also speaking at the forum were Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton, Julie Willems Van Dijk of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and several policy analysts from KHI, the parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service.

The 2014 report ranked the health of 98 of the state’s 105 counties. Wyandotte County, which ranked 96, and a cluster of counties in the southeast corner of the state continued to be near the bottom of the rankings. Allen County is an exception as it now ranks 79th, up 13 spots from its initial ranking in 2009.

Small steps

Those involved with Wyandotte County’s health improvement initiative understand that its results may not be evident for a generation, said Unified Government Public Health Director Joe Connor.

To stay energized, he said, they focus instead on intermediate steps, such as developing a sidewalk plan so that residents will have infrastructure that encourages walking and other physical activity.

Van Dijk said Kansas communities were using the health rankings reports exactly as envisioned by the authors.

“It is really all about taking action,” she said.

Unlike other states, Van Dijk said, Kansas has strong partnership between hospitals and the public health system. She also noted the deep community roots highlighted by some of Monday’s speakers, who said their families go back generations in their counties.

“I think you have a lot of great momentum here in Kansas,” she said.

Community conversations

Norton sits on the United Way board in Sedgwick County, which is home to Wichita, the state’s largest city. He said the report, which ranked Sedgwick County 69th, has helped community development discussions.

“So when we are talking about a neighborhood we want to revitalize or a problem that we have in the community,” he said, “then we have some really rich data that can be integrated with what the United Way has put together and that kind of interjects the health conversation into those decisions.”

Experts cautioned that efforts prompted by the health rankings could take years to bear fruit.

Toland said some of Allen County’s move up in the rankings may be partially attributable to the fact that some surrounding counties are getting worse.

Nevertheless, he said, the improved ranking in his county was something that Thrive Allen County notes to prospective businesses looking to locate in the area.

Residents are also taking note of the improved ranking.

“People are starting to see this as a source of pride,” he said.

More than 110 people took part in the forum, including more than three dozen listening via webcast. The group included representatives from local health departments, hospitals and nonprofit organizations.