County slips in national health ranking

Posted 3/20/19

Walker County's health ranking slipped from 58th to 60th in the annual County Health Rankings released Tuesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health …

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County slips in national health ranking


Walker County's health ranking slipped from 58th to 60th in the annual County Health Rankings released Tuesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Shelby County retained its spot as the healthiest county in the state, a ranking it has held since the first report was released in 2011.

The rankings take a comprehensive look at the factors that influence the health of a community, which include activities that are typically associated with health, such as smoking rates and physical activity rates, as well as social and environmental factors, such as graduation rates, employment and stable housing, that have been proven to have a substantial impact on community health. 

Walker County had risen to 58th in the state in overall health outcomes in 2017 and held steady in that spot in 2018 after ranking 67th, or last, in 2015.

The Walker County Health Action Partnership has been working since 2013 to build a local culture of health. The goal is to be ranked in the state's top 10 for health outcomes by 2025.

"Premature deaths continue to be our biggest factor weighing down our health outcomes," said Elyse Peters, Health Partnerships specialist for community impact. 

Premature death is defined in the study as years of potential life lost before age 75 per 100,000 population. Walker County's rate was 15,500 in the current study. Only one other county, Lowndes, had a worse rate. The state's overall rate was 9,900.

Adult smoking and obesity rates are highlighted as “Areas to Explore" in the current ranking, according to Peters.

"This year, in addition to the impact of the opioid crisis, our heart disease death rates increased. This aligns with our readmissions data, with COPD and congestive heart failure consistently being in the top three diagnosis for readmits," she said. 

One bright spot was the county's improvement in health factors from 31 in 2018 to 24 in 2019. 

The unemployment rate is down by 2 percent. The number of children in poverty is down by 7 percent, and median household income increased from $39,500 to $41,900. All are categorized as social determinants to health.

"Our health factors are trending up, which is a pattern we want to see. As health factors improve, health outcomes will get better over time," Peters said. 

Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation and the chair of the Walker County Health Action Partnership, was also encouraged by the climb from 31st to 24th in overall health factors.

“We need to continue to reinforce the progress that we have made and not quit on those persistent factors that continue to drag us down in the rankings. We will spend more time in 2019 focused on heart disease, obesity, smoking and overdose deaths — all factors in our too-high rate of premature death. If we can move these few key factors, we can skyrocket up the rankings and become the healthier community that we strive to be,” Kennedy said. 

The Bold Goals Coalition, 200 organizations solving big community problems by aligning partners, resources and agendas, is working to ensure Walker County and its central Alabama neighbors will be ranked in the top 10 healthiest counties in Alabama by 2025. 

“The Bold Goals Coalition is committed to finding collaborative, innovative solutions to some of Central Alabama’s most pressing problems,” Drew Langloh, president and CEO of United Way of Central Alabama, said in a press release. “Our approach continues to show measurable results, and that’s illustrated in the overall improvements in the rankings over the past few years.”

The coalition is working in collaboration with the Jefferson County and Walker County Health Action Partnerships to not only improve the environments where people live, but also to address the broader health disparities that exist in the region.  

“The rankings illuminate health disparities across Central Alabama,” said Dr. Monica Baskin, professor and vice chair of culture and diversity in the Department of Medicine and associate director for community outreach and engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is also the chair of the Jefferson County Health Action Partnership. 

“A core theme of our work through the Health Action Partnership is to develop and promote strategies that address the root causes of these disparities, not only at the regional level, but also at the community and neighborhood level," she said.