Many factors drive health: from how much people drink and smoke, and what sort of health care they have, to all kinds of economic and environmental factors, like employment and pollution. To see how your county is doing, and what factors may be behind its performance, take a look at the County Health Rankings website. It offers a terrifically useful and detailed snapshot of more than 3,000 communities across the nation.
From the homepage, you can dive into your state, and see how your county compares. We’ve reproduced some of the maps here, for Colorado, Florida and Washington state. "Health outcomes" are in green (e.g. mortality rates and how often people feel unwell), while "health factors" are in blue (e.g. rates of inactivity and fast-food restaurants). By looking at the two maps together, you can see what drives health at county-level.
One of the main points of the rankings is to show that health depends on more than access to health care, says Bridget Catlin, who leads the project. "We also look at things that are fundamentally important to health that people don’t always think about. There is more to health than just health care. All these other factors can be equally or more important."
Catlin started the project nine years ago, initially focusing just on her home state of Wisconsin (she works at the University of Wisconsin). Then the Robert Wood Foundation stepped in with funding to take the idea national.
The idea is to get communities to focus on particular issues for them. People can see how their areas compare across 25 metrics, and understand where they might be failing (an "areas to explore" toggle on each county snapshot page also highlights them).
The rankings complement America’s Health Rankings, which focuses on data at a state level. But these ones could be more useful.
Looking through the maps, you can see how much health—like politics—is local. While big national and state trends tell us something about the health of the nation, there can be big divergences on the ground. For example, if you compare the healthiest county in Colorado (Pitkin), with the least healthy (Huerfano), you see the latter has a premature death rate (represented by the number of years lost before age 75) almost three times higher. Talking about health in broad terms tends to minimize these disparities.
Catlin says: "I think of my home state of Wisconsin, and you think that it’s pretty homogeneous. But we’re not all the same. There are these major differences."