Utah's healthiest counties welcome newcomer in 2013 report

Published: Wednesday, March 20 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

Aerial views of Utah Lake in Utah County on Friday, Mar. 2, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Wasatch County made strides in this year's healthiest county rankings, knocking Summit and Davis counties down a notch and taking hold of fourth place.

Several other Utah counties shifted slightly in the results of the annual study, released Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The County Health Rankings, in its fourth year, is intended to shape policy and community planning decisions and "build a culture of health," said Michelle Larkin, public health team director at the foundation.

Morgan, Cache, Utah, Summit and Davis counties have traditionally held the top five spots, with Carbon, Sevier and Duchesne counties at the bottom. Daggett and Rich counties were not included in the rankings.

"Wasatch is very lifestyle-friendly, with lots of opportunities for being outdoors," said Christopher Smoot, community health division director with Wasatch County Health Department. He said people in the area keep in touch with each other and community events are well-attended.

"It's those generic, small-town things that make it great," Smoot said.

The county's health department partners with the hospital and clinics there, as well as with businesses to get information about health and well-being to the public. It focuses on common health concerns of obesity and smoking rates, and has recently begun to look at suicide and prescription drug abuse rates, which are also on the rise.

"Health can impact more than just individual wellness and well-being," Smoot said. "If we don't have a healthy community, it can result in a loss of productivity and a decline in overall well-being, including mental health disparities."

Ultimately, he said, "it is a personal responsibility to be healthy."

Grand County moved in a different direction than Wasatch, falling from a ninth place health ranking in last year's report, to 21st place for health outcomes this year.

The 2013 report ranks counties according to their summary measures of health outcomes and health factors. It tallies statistics dealing with 25 different factors that are believed to influence health, including tobacco and alcohol use rates, teen birth rates and rates of sexually transmitted disease, access to medical and dental care, as well as access to healthy food options, and educational and employment attainment.

Counties receive a rank for mortality, morbidity, health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and the physical environment, including water quality, which is a new category this year.

"Communities are beginning to work together for better health," said Patrick Remington, who leads the study efforts at the University of Wisconsin. "We are finding out that it is all of our responsibilities to promote better health."

National trends show that child poverty hasn't improved in more than a decade, and that the lowest levels of health can be found in areas across the country where low-income populations, smoking and teen birth rates, and levels of inactivity are each higher than average, the report states.

Dr. Karen DeSalvo, commissioner of health in New Orleans, has seen marked improvement in health outcomes throughout her community in recent years. She said policymakers are learning that "health is about more than just getting people to the doctor. It's about creating healthier environments where we live, learn, work and play."

Reducing the achievement gap, encouraging graduation from high school and participation in higher education, creating more walkable communities and providing better access to health choices, DeSalvo said, have helped to change lifestyles of people living within the community, which has historically been known as one of poor health.

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