PRESS RELEASE: March 29, 2011
HUNTERDON IS NEW JERSEY’S HEALTHIEST COUNTY
Hunterdon County is again 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 again 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, the many organizations with which we work, and the passionate undertakings of the past county Partnership for Health teams that move us all in a healthier direction. This ranking is proof positive that the resources we invest, the energies we devote, are bearing 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 delivered the results we all strive for. But this is no time to rest on past laurels. Now, we need to look extensively at our 'Health Factors' data. Though we’re currently 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 continues to be a problem here in the county,” said Beckley. “In fact, 18 percent engage in this behavior. Compare this to the statewide rate of only 16 percent. It gets even worse when you look at the national benchmark target for this behavior: that is set all the way down at 8 percent. Clearly, this is an area where things can get better.”
But there are successes to report, too. Beckley gives an example where Hunterdon County shows measurable improvement. ““Adult smoking. This year’s ranking study indicates that 15 percent of county adults smoke,” said Beckley. “But we’ve done even better than that. Based on our own 2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey data, our smoking prevalence is even lower, at five percent. This is a genuine achievement when considering that the national benchmark is set at 15 percent. Yet, I continue to stress that even more improvement could mean better quality of life, longer life, for that five percent of our county population and their families.”
If Hunterdon County’s top health ranking is partly due to ongoing collaborations between the county health department, Hunterdon Healthcare, and the many community organizations in the partnership, credit also goes 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, agrees with that assessment. “Partnership at every level is the only effective way to address the true complexity of health decisions. This requires teamwork among 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.
“Since its inception, Hunterdon Medical Center has advocated to our community the importance of having a medical home or primary care physician,” said Wise. “Having a medical home avoids a consumer’s entry into the Emergency Department where it is a more costly method of treatment. We have a solid primary and pediatric care network which has expanded into four counties; Hunterdon, Warren, Somerset and Mercer. This network 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 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, there are two disappointing surprises in this report that can be explained with broader reporting tools. “Of all things, the ranking study indicates that the county can do better when it comes to access to fresher, healthier foods. Crazy, right? This is one area that shows that even the ranking study data gathering process could improve with some fine tuning. We rank lower because the study only measures access to healthy food based on the number of supermarkets, grocery stores and farm markets that are run as formal businesses. It does not count the many informal farm stands and agricultural markets that are open seasonally throughout our county.”
The other shortcoming in this latest ranking report is that Hunterdon could do better when it comes to offering more access to recreational facilities. “Again, this is a shocker,” said Beckley. “But then when you look what the study uses to measure this factor, it becomes clear: They only focus on the number of fitness and recreational sports facilities. The ranking does not reflect the huge amount of recreational opportunities we enjoy here in Hunterdon such as our public parklands, playgrounds, bike trails, and community pools.”
This latest health ranking indicates that Hunterdon County also has room for improvement in air quality. “Hunterdon residents experience 11 unhealthy high-ozone days per year, a rate that matches the statewide mark,” advised Beckley. But the national target is set at zero. “While we’ve seen a 50 percent reduction in this rate from last year’s ranking report that indicated 22 days of high ozone readings, it pays to remember that this particular measure can vary widely from year to year, based on days where the temperature climbs above 90 degrees. Yet, 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 the ranking data as we continuously evolve our vision and plan for an even healthier Hunterdon County.”
For more information about the County Health Rankings visit www.countyhealthrankings.org/.