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Riley named 2nd healthiest county

By Rose Schneider

Riley County ranks as the second healthiest county in Kansas in rankings released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Pottawatomie County is also ranked among the top five.

The study, now in its fourth year, ranks and scores 102 Kansas counties based on health outcomes and factors, among them high school graduation rates, obesity, smoking and family or social support. It also graphs changes over time including children in poverty, unemployment and quality of care in the community.

Riley County actually fell one position on the list, having ranked first both last year and in 2011. It was second in 2010, the study’s first year. Johnson County was first this year. Pottawatomie County ranked fourth, right behind Stevens County.

“Riley County has a lot to be proud of … a lot of counties would like to be where you are,” said Gianfranco Pezzino, a physician, senior fellow and strategy team leader at the Kansas Health Institute.

However, Pezzino notes that there is always room for improvement, especially when it comes to health.

According to Pezzino, Riley County had “more premature deaths and poor health in comparison to Johnson County.”

Riley County ranked sixth behind Johnson, Nemaha, McPherson, Hodgeman and Mitchell counties in the indirect conditions in the 2013 rankings.

According to Pezzino, Riley County had “twice the amount of STDs as Johnson County but could improve in this area.” Another area that Riley County doesn’t compare favorably in is the socioeconomic category.

“Riley County has two times the amount of children in poverty, fewer high school graduates and 50-percent more crime than Johnson County,” Pezzino said. “Another physical element measured in this report that had an effect on Riley County included limited access to healthy food and accessible grocery stores that had fresh fruit or veggies instead of junk food type stores.”

Still, the overall impression was positive.  Pezzino said the county “has a major university that attracts professionals with better than average education and health practices but on the other hand it also draws a lots of students and young people who may have STDs and participate in excessive drinking.”

According to a press release by the Kansas Health Institute, on a national level the data revealed that unhealthy counties have more than twice the rate of premature deaths as healthy ones and childhood poverty rates are twice as high in unhealthy counties.

Kansas’s data showed similar results. Residents of the five least-healthy Kansas counties, when compared with their counterparts in the five healthiest counties, are more likely to die prematurely, report fair to poor health and be unemployed. Children in the five lowest-ranked counties are more likely to live in poverty and single parent households than children in the five highest-ranked counties.

However, Pezzino said the results of the state health ranking have led counties to change behavior.

“There are a lot of community based movements being done but it will be several years for the results to be reflected in the rankings…it is a good example of how these results can be used positively — not as a stigma — but as an incentive to make our counties healthy,” Pezzino said.

“It is also a great opportunity to talk about what makes us healthy because it is more than what happens in the doctor’s office; it is where we work, learn and where we play in the community.”

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