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Johnson County sees slight drop in health ranking

BY CHASTITY DILLARD | APRIL 05, 2012 6:30 AM

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Johnson County officials say they aren't worried about the county's health, despite a 3-point drop in the 2012 national County Health Rankings project study.

"Johnson County has always looked favorably across the state, and a lot of the data that are in here, we have looked at individually," said Doug Beardsley, director of Johnson County Public Health.

The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released its third-annual study, ranking the health of more than 3,000 counties in the United States.

In Iowa, Johnson County's overall rank dropped from fifth in 2011 to eighth in 2012.

Beardsley said the department has prioritized improving on four health areas: obesity, access to care, binge and underage drinking, and access to mental-health care — in most of which the area ranks as healthier than state and national averages in the report.

"That's kind of one of the difficulties with Johnson County," he said. "How [the county] measures might be better than others. Johnson County is a good place to live, but it doesn't mean we can't do anything."

According to the report, Johnson County has seen a steady increase in adult obesity from 22 percent of the population in 2010 to 24 percent in 2012.

Despite the increase, Beardsley said, the county is still below the state average — 29 percent. But county officials still take the increase seriously.

The department has established an obesity task force that focuses on physical activity and nutrition. One North Liberty school has implemented a walking school-bus project to promote more exercise for children.

A new measure in the study shows the percentage of fast-food restaurants in each county, revealing 38 percent of restaurants in Johnson County were fast-food choices.

Cody Arndt, a team leader for Chick-Fil-A, 1451 Coral Ridge Ave., said fast food is more convenient.

"I see it as a possible problem, if people don't take into consideration how much they are eating it," Arndt said. "It's kind of hard to fight convenience. Convenience will always beat out the benefits of healthier options in the long run."

For 2012, Johnson County's lowest rank — at 88 of the 99 counties — was physical environment, which takes into account fast food, access to healthy food, and recreation.

Kate Konkle, outreach specialist for the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, said the goal is for communities to use the ranking system as a catalyst for change.

"It shows them where they have some strengths and good things to build on and learn from but also that there are opportunities for improvements," she said. "The rankings show us that where we live matters to our health."

Beardsley said though the county will use this data as another tool, a majority of the individual data are issues officials already acknowledge.

"When we re-evaluate and redo the community needs assessment, if something else becomes as important, we will look into it," Beardsley said. "But just because something comes up in the statistics doesn't mean it's important to the community."

Patricia Quinlisk, state Public Health Department medical director and state epidemiologist, said though the overall study's message is good it's not the "end all, be all."

"[Reports] are great at helping identifying things you may want to put more time into, but they are not great at defining a good county or bad county," she said. "What they are giving you is an overall snapshot."

Data from places such as rural Iowa may not be as reliable as data from urban areas, such as Chicago, that may have more representation in the study, she said.

Konkle said the rankings are relative.

"Even if a county improves, other counties may improve faster, pushing them behind," she said. "Look at the data behind the rankings to get a real picture."


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