CONCORD, N.H. — Rockingham is New Hampshire’s healthiest county, but Grafton remains No. 1 when it comes to factors influencing health, according to a new national report.
The University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on Wednesday released its second annual report assessing wellness in nearly all of the nation’s 3,000-plus counties. Counties in each state were compared to each other in two categories: health outcomes and health factors. The former was based on a population’s length and quality of life, while the latter was based on factors that influence health, such as individual behaviors, income and access to care.
Last year, Grafton county was ranked first in both health outcomes and health factors. This year, it fell to No. 3 in health outcomes, and Rockingham and Merrimack counties each moved up a spot to be named the two healthiest counties, followed by Cheshire, Hillsborough, Belknap, Carroll, Strafford, Sullivan and Coos.
For a second year, Sullivan and Coos both were at the bottom of the health factors list as well. Grafton topped that list, followed by Rockingham, Merrimack, Hillsborough, Carroll, Belknap, Strafford and Cheshire. Though some of the counties shifted position compared to last year, Joan Ascheim, chief of the state’s bureau of public health systems, said there are not huge differences betw een counties ranked near each other.
There is a significant gap between the highest and lowest ranking counties, however, largely because of the socioeconomic factors, she said. Coos County, for example, has higher rates of unemployment and poverty and fewer college graduates.
“All those things contribute to and are very much tied to health behaviors and the ability to access care,” she said.
The demographics are the opposite in the higher ranked counties, which also tend to have larger hospitals and greater access to quality health care, she said.
The county rankings use much of the same data the state used to compile its recent state health profile, Ascheim said. When the state report was released earlier this month, officials said the next step will be breaking down all the numbers by region so services and projects can be better targeted.
The state also has begun working on producing a series of videos highlighting public health success stories that can be shared with communities that need help, Ascheim said. For example, a community concerned about obesity could learn from a town that changed its school lunch menu.
“When people see numbers, it doesn’t really resonate with them,” she said.
The health outcomes rankings took into account such things as premature deaths, self-reported health statuses and the percent of low birth-weight babies. Measures such as obesity rates, unemployment, high school graduation rates and pollution contribute to the health factors rankings.
“Basically what the ranking report tells us is that that overall, people in Coos County don’t live as long and their lives are less healthy. That’s the message that we really have to use to motivate people, because it really does affect the economic vitality of the area,” said Martha McLeod, executive director of the North Country Health Consortium. “If you have a population that is not as healthy and doesn’t live as long, your work force is not as healthy. There’s some motivation for us to work on some of these things.”
McLeod said the report will help her organization target its efforts, which already encompass some of the elements on which the rankings were based. For example, on the behavior front, the consortium is working with young people on substance abuse prevention. When it comes to accessing health care, the consortium is addressing the challenge of getting providers to work in rural areas by encouraging the region’s young people to pursue health careers.
“We’re hoping they’d come back and be more interested in working in their communities as health professionals,” she said.