Douglas County moves up a spot in county health rankings

Douglas County moved up a spot in the annual rankings of the healthiest counties in Kansas released Wednesday, from ninth to eighth.

While Douglas County fared well in areas like physical activity and access to exercise opportunities, it scored poorly in measures like housing and sexually transmitted diseases, according to the report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Johnson County topped the list for a second consecutive year, while Woodson County in southeast Kansas finished last out of the 98 counties ranked.

“I saw a quote from President Obama the other day: ‘Our zip code is more important in determining our future health than our genetic code,'” said Dan Partridge, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. “Housing, education, poverty, income — all of those are a bigger driver of our future health than genetics.”

Douglas County did best in health outcomes and behaviors but struggled with social, economic and environmental factors. For instance, in the report’s major scoring categories, Douglas County finished third in health behaviors, fourth in length of life and eighth in clinical care, yet 30th in quality of life, 35th in social and economic factors and 56th in physical environment.

That last score happened in large part because 20 percent of residents reported “severe housing problems,” above the state average of 13 percent. That means those households were either overcrowded (more than 1.5 people per room), overly expensive (cost more than half of household income) or had incomplete plumbing or kitchen facilities. The Lawrence City Commission hoped to resolve some of those safety- and health-related issues by passing a rental licensing and inspection program this week.

Douglas County also had rates of sexually transmitted disease infection and violent crime significantly above the state average, though a teen birth rate well below it.

Also, on the positive side, 88 percent of the county’s population has access to exercise opportunities, compared to 71 percent statewide, while only 18 percent of residents are physically inactive, compared to a quarter in the rest of Kansas. In addition, Douglas County did well in its number of mental health providers and preventable hospital stays, and scored better than the rest of the state in its rates of obesity and smoking.

“I think this community has a culture or ethos that values health and good, healthy behaviors,” Partridge said. “I attribute our good scores around built environment, physical activity and health behaviors to that collective mindset in the community.”

Douglas County has ranked in the top 10 since the report first started being published, in 2010.