The Healthiest Counties in Massachusetts
Tuesday, April 01, 2014
The study, which has been compiling data for the past five years now, is a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Several factors were considered by the organization when analyzing the data including health outcomes like length and quality of life, and health factors such as health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment.
See the slideshow below to see which Massachusetts counties are the healthiest in the state.
Although Worcester County ranks in the bottom half of the rankings list, small improvements have been made in past few years. Health behaviors like adult obesity and smoking are areas that continue to plague Worcester County, while small improvements have been made to the categories of premature deaths and overall clinical care.
National Study, Local Initiative
County Health Rankings and Roadmaps examine the nation in terms of states and districts but the ultimate goal for the research is to benefit individual communities by promoting key areas that require awareness.
“We really wanted to send a message that where you live matters,” said Kate Konkle, an associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. “A lot of things are affected by where you live; we know that a lot more goes into determining public health than looking at the hospitals and doctors of a particular county.”
County Health Rankings and Roadmaps was designed to look at two key areas of research: rankings in health outcomes and rankings in health factors. Health outcomes determine how healthy a particular county is by looking at how long people live and how they feel when they are alive. Health factors analyze health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical factors to determine a county’s potential to be healthy in the future.
“We hope that these rankings are used as a conversation starter,” said Konkle. “We want for people within a community to be able to look at what they are doing right for their health and what needs to be worked on in the future so that changes can be made on a local level.”
Looking Toward the Future
Recognizing that the future health of the nation resides in the hands of today’s youth, Worcester is one of many cities across the nation targeting children with a variety of health programs and campaigns aimed at raising health awareness at a school level.
“I can recall my days as a school principal where I would reject serving cereals that were high in sugar to my students,” said John Monfredo, a member of the Worcester School Committee. Monfredo was the principal at Belmont Community School in Worcester from 1984-2004. “I think the gesture may have been a little before its time, but I’m happy that we are now focusing on the health of our students.”
Monfredo points to a variety of initiatives taking place throughout the city that have helped the overall health and awareness of children, including increased opportunities for exercise, training students how to do CPR, having teachers speak of the importance of not smoking, and bringing in farm fresh fruits and vegetables into the school’s cafeterias.
While some programs are offered at all schools in the Worcester Public School District, others are only offered in one or a few. Although these programs may have a limited reach now, it is the goal of the Worcester Public School District to expand the ones that are particularly effective.
“It’s not every day that we can say that a club at a school has made a difference in the school and in the community,” said Monfredo, referring to the P.E.A.C.H. club that began at Doherty High School in 2007. “The students are energetic and truly enjoy making a difference in their community. This is a program that we certainly hope to expand in the future.”
P.E.A.C.H. (which stands for Promoting Exercise and Continuous Health) is a club where students work to gain optimal nutritional and physical activity opportunities for all students in Worcester Public Schools as well as the community as a whole. Started by a $3,000 grant from Massachusetts Action for Healthy Kids, the club continues to grow.
Monfredo has noticed that awareness on a national level has helped in certain ways - like the nation’s decreased smoking rate - but he acknowledges local programs and initiatives like P.E.A.C.H. as some of the most important to help the overall health of the nation.
“Change needs to happen on a local level,” said Monfredo. “Awareness of a healthy lifestyle plays a major role in the health of students. We try to make sure that we monitor what we are giving students so that they can be healthy. All of this goes hand in hand with creating a healthy student body.”
Problems with County Comparison?
Worcester County has consistently ranked toward the bottom of both lists published by County Health Rankings and Roadmaps for all five years that the lists have been compiled.
Worcester County ranked 9th in the years 2010, 2013 and 2014 in terms of overall health rankings in health outcomes, while they ranked 10th in 2011 and 2012. In the category of overall rankings in health factors, Worcester County has ranked 11th every year the list has been compiled.
While the trend certainly suggests that Worcester County has stabilized as one of the least healthy counties in Massachusetts, some cities have said that county studies fail to point out the growth of specific communities within the district.
“The issue that I have with the county rankings is that it is hard to measure a particular city’s growth” said Derek Brindisi, Director of Public Health for the city of Worcester. “There are so many different data points that are affected by different areas of a particular county.”
Brindisi noted that a study that analyzes counties as opposed to city-by-city data has the potential to gloss over areas that communities are working hard to fix.
“Some trends among health in Worcester are better and some are worse,” said Brindisi. “Historically, Worcester has always had a high smoking rate which can be attributed partially to the urban communities. Issues like smoking are things that we continue to research and try to work on in the future.”
Brindisi pointed to Worcester’s own health assessment report, the Greater Worcester Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP), as a more comprehensive way to look at the overall health of the city.
The report, which began compiling data in 2012, is a partnership among the City of Worcester Division of Public Health, UMass Memorial, Common Pathways, and over 90 other organizations. The goal of the report is to compile and analyze health related data in Worcester so that key areas of weakness can be addressed.
“We are trying to measure policy and environmental change,” said Brindisi. “The city of Worcester is doing a lot to improve health in the community, or ultimate goal is to be the healthiest city in New England by 2020!”
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