When the annual national county health rankings came out last week, MPR News’ Lorna Benson duly hit the numbers in her broadcast report. Lac qui Parle is the healthiest county in the state, Cass the least; Minnesota’s southern counties tended to do better on the rankings of health outcomes than northern counties.
But her report also got past the curiosity-generating rankings and noted that everywhere from Lac qui Parle to Cass, people are taking actions, biting off small enough pieces to chew on to get community residents to exercise more, eat better, smoke less.
My instinct when a huge set of numbers like this comes out is to dive in and see what telling trends or peculiarities might be hidden after the first day of news. Who practices the safest sex? (Stevens County.) Who smokes the most? (Beltrami County.)
But the more I looked at the extensive web site compiled by the University of Wisconsin in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the more impressive was, not the numbers, but the voluminous pile of help available to anyone who wants to do something about them.
Are you an employer? There’s a 12-bullet list of steps you can take, some as simple as starting a conversation.
Are you a community member? You can find nine suggestions for action and a host of links to other sources and examples.
Concerned but don’t know where to start? There’s advice on how to set priorities.
Do you learn by example? You can find out what Wyandotte County, Kansas, did after coming in last in that state’s rankings last year. Same for Columbus County, North Carolina.
Patrick Remington is the University of Wisconsin professor who leads the work, and he’s pretty straightforward that the numbers are essentially the teaser to catch interest. The point is to get people to take some action.
The action doesn’t have to be huge. A physician in Juneau County, Wisconsin, started handing out readers to his young patients, an act Remington said shows how health outcomes are the result of factors well beyond health care. Economic and educational well being is a huge factor as well.
“You’re almost paralyzed by how much you can do,” Remington said. “We need to move the dialogue from ‘We have a problem’ to ‘What we should do.’
“If we keep coming back and saying your county ranks at the bottom, the logical response is to do something about it.”
The strategy of Remington and the foundation is a textbook example of the hope that information can lead to action. In fact, Remington thinks that as government’s ability to effect public health improvements has dwindled, some of the people who want to make a difference in this area have gone into, of all things, journalism.
It always takes somebody on the ground in a place to make something happen, but information like what’s available in the county ranking website is a key to starting. To help things along the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is offering as many as 14 communities around the country up to $200,000 each to implement a health-changing plan in the next two years.
If you’re interested, you have until April 27 to apply. Go here for details.
Because health care, especially when it comes to rural areas, is one of those significant, complex topics that responds to on-the-ground actions that community residents take for themselves, it’s a good one for Ground Level. So over the coming weeks and months, look for more from us on how Minnesotans are dealing with the challenge.
Perhaps a year from now, the story will be less about who’s on top and who’s on the bottom and more about who’s doing what to change.