HUNTERDON COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
HUNTERDON IS NEW JERSEY’S HEALTHIEST COUNTY
Hunterdon County is ranked as New Jersey’s healthiest county. This is one of the new findings of the "County Health Rankings: Mobilizing Action Toward Community Health," a rigorous health study of the nation's 3,016 counties by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute. The new countrywide rankings provide a comprehensive way for public health and community leaders to measure the local health of every county in every state and see how well they are doing and where improvements are needed. The goal is to mobilize communities to overcome health barriers and make their county a healthier place to live.
“That Hunterdon County is ranked as the healthiest county in New Jersey is indeed good news for all of us who experience what this county has to offer on a daily basis,” said John Beckley, health officer and director of the Hunterdon County Department of Health. “As county health officer, I’m indebted not only to our own county health department staff but also to the local health care community and the many organizations with which we work to move us all in a healthier direction. This ranking is proof positive that the resources we invest, the energies we’ve devote, are bearing the fruit we all can enjoy.”
The rankings are a complex system of comparisons about what makes one community healthy and another not so healthy. The report ranks each county in two ways: "Health Outcomes" and "Health Factors." Health outcomes are derived from a county's disease and death rates.
More intricate are the health factors ratings which are compiled from verifiable sources that track obesity rates, tobacco use and alcohol consumption. The study also goes further to include social and economic factors, such as unemployment, income and community safety, in addition to access to health care and environmental factors.
"In ‘Health Outcomes', we rank number one out of the 21 counties in the state,” said Beckley. “Think of this as where we are today when comparing disease and death rates with the other counties. In a sense, this tells us that Hunterdon’s health investments of the past have delivered the aims we all strive for. But this is no time to rest on past laurels. Now, what we’ll be looking at extensively is our 'Health Factors' data. While we’re again ranked at the top, it’s the health factors that shape where we’re headed; they’re predictors of our future community health."
Driving the health factors is a number of categories, one of which is health behaviors, an area in which Hunterdon County can make improvements. “Binge drinking among adults, for example,” said Beckley. “Here in Hunterdon, 16 percent engage in this behavior. But statewide, only 14 percent of adults do binge drinking; and the reduced target for this behavior is down at 12 percent. Clearly, this is an area where things can get better.”
Beckley gives another example where Hunterdon County can improve. “Adult smoking. The rankings study indicates that 13 percent of county adults smoke. While this is better than the statewide mark of 18 percent and slightly exceeds the target of 14 percent, it still represents an area in which improvement could mean better quality of life and longer life for 13 percent of our county population, and for their families.”
A key to Hunterdon County’s top health ranking is due in part to the ongoing collaboration between the county health department, Hunterdon Healthcare, the many organizations that contribute to better health of the community, and to county residents, themselves, who are making smarter choices. According to Beckley, a community’s health requires a community’s involvement.
Robert Wise, president and CEO of Hunterdon Healthcare, endorses that position. “Partnership at every level is the only effective way to address the true complexity of health challenges. This requires teamwork between the healthcare system, the physician practices, the county health department, the business community, religious and educational institutions, and importantly, our county residents.”
The ranking report indicated that per 100,000 persons, Hunterdon has 209 primary care providers, which is nearly 70 percent more than the New Jersey statewide provider rate of 124.
“Hunterdon Medica Center was one of the first teaching hospitals in the country for family practice physicians,” said Wise. “We have a solid primary and pediatric care network throughout Hunterdon County which has strengthened patients’ partnerships with their physician to ultimately improve health in our community. In addition, we place a high priority in providing preventive care so that our number of hospital stays is well below the state average. For example, diabetes screening is done more often in physician practices and through education from the Center for Nutrition and Diabetes Management and our Center for Healthy Aging addresses early-onset Alzheimer’s and insures home care support to the frail elderly,” Wise explained.
The rankings project is designed specifically to foster deeper engagement among public and private decision makers to improve community health. In Hunterdon County, actions to promote this type of community-level health improvement planning have been in motion. Until recent funding cuts curtailed the work of the Partnership for Health, that collaborative effort organized a health assessment of the county, defined specific areas for improvements and developed a Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) which is available for viewing at http://www.co.hunterdon.nj.us/pdf/health/final_chip2007.pdf.
“We are pleased to be ranked as the state’s healthiest county, but this doesn’t change the facts as we know them,” Beckley pointed out. “For us to improve the health factors even more in this county, we have substantial work to do. Through our Partnership for Health work of the past, we know that some residents of this county need access to better pre-natal care so they have fewer low-weight babies; we know that better access to quality care helps keep people well – we all need a ‘medical home’ and a relationship with a doctor whom we trust.”
According to Beckley, another surprising area in which data suggests the county can do better is for access to fresher, healthier foods. “Here in Hunterdon? This may seem implausible, but it’s true,” said Beckley. “And mental health also remains a serious area for improvement. People who are happier are healthier, so mental health is extremely important. As this new ranking study indicates, we also have room for improvement in our air quality. Hunterdon residents experience 22 unhealthy high-ozone days per year. Compare this with the statewide mark of only 14. And the target is set at 6. Seeing that the air we breathe is tied to many serious respiratory health factors such as asthma, heart disease, and cancer, we have to acknowledge this newest, latest data as we continuously evolve our vision and plan for an even healthier Hunterdon County.”
For more information about the County Health Rankings visit http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/.