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County health rankings: Who's the healthiest of them all?

The University of Wisconsin has released the third annual county health rankings. The survey has become a competitive tool for businesses and local governments concerned about the cost of health care.

Kai Ryssdal: Here's a quick geography quiz as part of the news today. Most excessive drinkers in the country -- where are they? In the northern states. Most teen pregnancies and STDs? The South. Highest percentage of fast food restaurants? Maryland, Nevada and Utah.

And, you know, we could play the mapping game all day with the data out this morning from the national County Health Rankings from the University of Wisconsin. But you know who else is playing along?

Businesses.

From the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY in Philadelphia, Gregory Warner reports.


Gregory Warner: The City of Hernando has a new slogan: Healthiest Hometown in Mississippi. Mayor Chip Johnson says his county’s good health ranking is good for jobs.

Chip Johnson: This is a healthy place to do business, your people will show up for work, they will have lower health care premiums. I think it’s going to entice businesses to move to our area.

But it’s not just politicians reaching out to businesses about county health rankings. The opposite is true. Some dismal scores last year prompted a large chemical plant in the Midwest to prod local school boards to open up their basketball courts for the public to exercise.

Bridget Catlin directs the county rankings, now in its third year out of the University of Wisconsin.

Bridget Catlin: They’re beginning to realize, and I think the rankings have contributed to this that it’s the environments that people live, as well as the workplace settings that are important.

The single digit rankings synthesize reams of data -- from air pollution levels and rates of STDs to the percentage of bike paths and fast food in a county.

Click for bigger map
Click for bigger map.

Jo Morgan directs health education in Pitt County, N.C., which actually slipped down 10 notches to the middle of the pack.

Jo Morgan: It does encourage us to look beyond our county, at our neighbors, and ask ourselves: Is there anything different about them, than us?

As a health educator, Morgan welcomes the rankings. She says it’s a lot easier to get politicians and business leaders to compete around improving a number like low birthweight. Than it is to get people to pay attention to its root cause, which is poverty.

In Philadelphia (which is yet again ranked dead last in Pennsyvlania), I’m Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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