It’s unlikely people were waiting for this year’s County Health Ratings with the same excitement as the NCAA finals or the Academy Awards. But there is something about us that loves a ‘score’ and makes us sit up and pay attention. The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are banking on the fact that by ranking the health of virtually every county in the country, they will help us to sit up, take notice, and take action.

First a word about what the ratings look at. Good health care is part of it. So are behaviors like smoking and reckless driving that compromise health. Breathing clean air and access to healthy foods contribute. But the developers of the rankings credit factors like poverty, poor educational opportunities, and high crime rates as the ‘elephant in the room,’ taking the biggest toll on health. Consider these national findings:

  • — People are nearly twice as likely to be in fair or poor health in the unhealthiest counties
  • — Unhealthy counties have significantly lower high school graduation rates
  • — Unhealthy counties have more than twice as many children in poverty
  • — Unhealthy counties have much fewer grocery stores or farmer’s markets
  • — Unhealthy counties have much higher rates of unemployment
If you want to probe your county or state, take a look at the website – It’s informative, crisp and easy to navigate. Want to look at your whole state? It will produce a map shading counties based on their rankings. Want to look at your county? Click on it and you will find out why it ranked in the lower – or higher – quartile of your state. Wondering how your largest city compares to its suburban county, click on compare and go for it.

OK, so then what? The County Ratings have a tagline – Mobilizing Action Towards Community Health – MATCH. In 2010, the Rankings first year, community members, health departments, public officials and others used them to draw attention to health issues and the causes of ill health. Some have moved to action – Kansas City’s Mayor described the broad coalition they’ve brought together and a new approach that enlists every county department – from public safety to public works –to address health as they do their work. In other places, the rankings have motivated action to pass a smoke-free ordinance or push for healthier grocery choices or a farmer’s market.

Based on efforts like these, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is taking MATCH a step further by announcing a new funding program for communities that are ready to take action on that “elephant in the room” — the social and economic factors that affect health. The MATCH initiative will fund up to 14 community networks to work together to advance and implement policies and practices to improve these factors, and the health of their communities. Check out the details.

— Debbie Katz, Lead Field Coordinator