From the Harford County Health Department:
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has announced the release of its 2014 national County Health Rankings report. The rankings, now in their fourth year, are broken down into two major categories: health outcomes and health factors, each of which represents a weighted summary of various measures. An overview of the findings reflects health status in Harford remains stable.
Harford again ranked tenth among the 24 jurisdictions throughout Maryland in health outcomes, representing how healthy a county is, while improving its ranking from ninth to sixth in the state with respect to health factors, representing what influences the health of the county. The county also ranked sixth overall with respect to length of life, where rates of premature death were far lower than the state average.
The report helps illustrate that how long and how well people live depends on multiple factors including rates of smoking, education, and access to healthy food, and help to lay the groundwork for health improvement efforts, both locally and statewide. Harford County Health Officer, Susan Kelly references the County’s Local Health Improvement Process (LHIP) that is part of a larger Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene statewide initiative addressing 39 key health objectives. Launched in 2011 for purposes of identifying the County’s most critical health needs and targeting them for action, a large and diverse Coalition composed of agency representatives and community stakeholders has spent the past two years developing strategies that address three health priority areas identified in the County: obesity, tobacco use and behavioral health.
Composing half of the “health factors” category, Harford achieved RWJ report rankings of 5th best in the state in both “health behaviors” and “clinical care.” Clinical care takes into consideration factors of “Access to Care” and “Quality of Care.” The Health Behaviors category consists of rankings in “Tobacco use” (adult smoking rates), “Diet and Exercise” (including rates of adult obesity, physical inactivity, a food environment index and access to exercise opportunities), “Alcohol and Drug Use” (rates of excessive drinking and alcohol-impaired driving deaths), and “Sexual activity” (rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen births). Wherein the County’s LHIP initiative focuses on three of these areas, Harford’s rankings were 12th, 8th, 9th, and 4th, respectively. Says Health Department spokesman, Bill Wiseman, “While we are gratified with our progress made to date, these are focus areas that warrant ongoing attention as well as the full support of our community partners and the public in achieving improvement.”
The county’s lowest rankings were 17th in housing and transit, 16th in physical environment (based upon limited air and water quality data), and 12th in tobacco use (adult smoking). Regarding almost all measurement criteria, Harford’s data and rankings remained consistent with its 2013 rankings.
The RWJF website describes the design of the County Health Rankings as more than a lengthy listing of health indicators. Instead, it serves as a call to action, where the use of ranks often serves to draw attention to community health issues. Ms. Kelly agrees, stating, “The Rankings point to areas where more in-depth analysis might be helpful, while also reinforcing the critical need for collaborative relationships. By using these measures as a tool as well as an incentive, we can create opportunities to engage businesses, health-care providers, government, consumers, our local health department and community leaders in exploring ways to help Harford Countians live longer, healthier lives.”
However, Ms. Kelly cautions that the rankings do not provide a totally clear nor comprehensive conclusion about health status in Harford or elsewhere. “Although the information contained in these annual reports is useful in targeting issues and motivating strategic planning, there are other influences that must be considered that also affect those rankings.” Included among them is the selection or exclusion of specific measurement criteria used to rank counties, as well as the influence of respondents’ self-reported perceptions about their physical and mental health.
Additionally, there are measurement criteria, such as environmental factors (having to do with air quality and public water quality), social and economic factors (such as income and educational levels, family support systems, unemployment and crime rates), and personal choices regarding health practices that fall outside the control of public health professionals and healthcare service providers. Adds Wiseman, “We encourage the public to access and read the entire report in order to gain a better perspective on Harford’s overall health profile, the RWJ report’s process, what is and is not included.”
While Ms. Kelly hopes the rankings would inspire changes needed to rise in the rankings, she acknowledges that a great deal depends on the health decisions and behaviors of Harford County residents. “Looking only at our rates and ranking versus other Maryland counties, it appears that Harford is relatively healthy by comparison. However, we recognize there are disparities relative to race and ethnicity and challenging issues left with which to deal.”
For the first time ever, this year’s RWJ County Health Rankings Report will include “Key Findings” highlighting trends at the regional and national level, as well and will offer an in-depth look at how five featured measures (children on poverty, college attendance, preventable hospital stays, smoking, and physical activity) are influencing health nationwide.
To link to the County Health Rankings report or for more information about the Harford County’s Local Health Improvement Process, visit the Harford County Health Department website at: www.harfordcountyhealth.com.