West Michigan remains one of the healthiest regions in the state, according to an annual report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Ottawa County is the top-ranked county in the state for health outcomes, joined by Kent County at No. 17 and Allegan County at No. 13, as West Michigan counties ranked in the top 20. Muskegon County ranks 68th of Michigan’s 83 counties.
The rankings include a variety of factors under the subcategories: quality of life, health factors, health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors, and physical environment.
For both Kent and Ottawa counties, the rankings serve somewhat as a report card, reaffirming data collected in local Community Health Assessments.
“We look at the county health rankings every year to get an idea of how Kent County is doing in relation to counties of similar size across the state,” said Adam London, health officer for the Kent County Health Department. “Oakland County is the only county larger than Kent that is ahead of us in the rankings, and we feel pretty good about where we’re at.”
For the most part, counties have hung around their ranking for several years, with Kent County fluctuating between 15 and 17 since 2011. But London said it’s not the overall ranking that is important to county health officials — it’s the numbers within that tell the true story of the county’s health.
One of the most telling and easily understood statistics in analyzing health outcomes is premature death rates, measured in years of potential life lost before age 75, per 100,000 people. Both Kent and Ottawa counties markedly outperformed the state average of 7,200 years of life lost. Ottawa ranked No. 1 in the state at 4,500 years, and Kent’s mark of 5,600 years places it just outside the top 10 percentile nationally (5,200 years).
Still, there are several areas of concern for both communities moving forward. Both Kent and Ottawa counties scored low in the physical environment subsection, both reporting air quality numbers over the state average.
London noted most southern counties did not score well in the particulate matter measures, with pollution from nearby manufacturing cities, such as Milwaukee and Gary, Indiana, drifting into the region. External factors can make it more difficult to move the needle on those measures, but some impact can be made in regulating local construction practices, improving travel and transportation systems and even small changes, like planting trees that produce more oxygen.
Similarly, both counties were docked for “severe housing problems,” which measures the percentage of households with at least one of four housing problems: overcrowding, high housing costs or lack of kitchen or plumbing facilities.
“One thing is the housing problem, whether it’s a shortage of housing or higher costs, that we can get better at,” Ottawa County Health Department Communications Specialist Kristina Wieghmink said. “That’s an area that’s being worked on with several organizations to improve.”
It’s that collaboration with local organizations, such as United Way, Community Mental Health and the county’s three hospital systems, that made Ottawa the top-ranked county in the state for health outcomes, Wieghmink said. The county worked with those partners to create the 2015 Community Health Improvement Plan, and the most recent rankings are a confirmation Ottawa continues to improve its health outcomes, she added.
In Kent, London said there still is much work to be done in the percentage of children living in poverty, excessive drinking numbers and reported sexually transmitted infections. The rate of reported STIs in Kent — 579.9 reported cases of chlamydia per 100,000 — is significantly higher than the state average of 447.2 reported cases per. That’s a number London said the county will have to look into, as it is unclear whether it truly represents a higher average of infections due to risky behaviors, or if it’s reflective of more intuitive medical care diagnoses.
“Regardless, we know we can do better,” London said.
While not all the measurables are easily actionable from the county’s standpoint, London said there are several areas of concern that can be improved on by the time next year’s report comes out. He said he’d like to see Kent’s excessive drinking numbers — 22 percent of adults reporting heavy or binge drinking compared to an average of 20 percent across the state — dip, as well as the number of smokers and obesity rates.
One of the biggest targets should be improving Kent’s physical activity, whether that’s through more education or providing more opportunities for residents to get out and be more active.
“I think people want to be active, but sometimes, they need encouragement or some tools to help them get out there,” he said. “I think we can provide that.”
Wieghmink said the rankings are an important reminder of where local counties stand in relation to their peers and where improvements can be made. It’s not just where the counties stand today, she said, but where they can stand tomorrow.
The rankings also can be a factor when it comes to businesses looking to expand in the region, London said. Additionally, it can be a motor for pushing a healthier community.
“Yes, it’s a progress report, but I think it’s also a powerful machine for moving policy forward,” London said. “People pay attention to it, and that’s half the battle. We want citizens to look at it and see what their priorities are, to give us an idea of what areas the community would like to see us focus on.”
The full health rankings are available at countyhealthrankings.org.