Wyandotte County health officials persist in their efforts to improve county’s health ranking

by Mary Rupert

Being 99th out of 103 counties in the state on health outcomes, after working several years to improve the county’s health ranking, is an uninspiring picture for Wyandotte County. However, local health officials are not giving up.

Instead, the county points to how it has moved out of the very last position at No. 103, up four positions in the past few years on the County Health Rankings from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Terry Brecheisen, director of the Unified Government Health Department, said the county has made progress in addressing health issues during the past few years, and it is currently in the process of developing a community health improvement plan.

A comparison with other counties doesn’t necessarily show improvements that have been made here. If all the other counties on the health ranking list are making the same amount of improvement, everyone else would stay at the same rankings, he said.

“You have to compare yourself with yourself, and are you doing things to make things better, and I think the answer is yes,” Brecheisen said.

He is not one to give up just because the rankings don’t show dramatic improvement in a few years.

“This is my hometown, I like living here,” Brecheisen said. He would like to live in the best lifestyle possible in a safe, clean and healthy place, he added. “I’m excited about living in Wyandotte County in the future.”

The county health rankings include some areas that are not traditionally thought of as health, such as income and education. Brecheisen said they’re addressing those nontraditional health areas, such as income, education, affordable housing and access to care, in the new community health improvement plan.

Factors such as education and income were shown to be two of the greatest predictors of health, he added.

While one might think that the community has little control over the income and education of its residents, Brecheisen said efforts such as bringing the new Amazon facility to Kansas City, Kansas, with thousands of jobs, and efforts to keep students in school can have a positive effect on health.

Better jobs equal better pay, with probably better insurance, allowing residents to go to the doctor more than if they did not have a job, he said. Jobs absolutely make a difference in people’s health, he said.

Those students who stay in school and graduate can get better jobs and make better decisions, he added.

In the current health rankings, the number of children in poverty was listed at 24 percent in Wyandotte County, compared to 14 percent in Kansas.

Brecheisen said some of these factors listed on the health rankings will not change overnight. If there are generational factors, such as families where there have never been high school graduates, he said, it’s tougher to change. The Wyandotte County high school graduation rate was listed at 73 percent, with the Kansas average at 86 percent.

Two other tough areas to change are smoking and obesity.

“You don’t get people to stop smoking overnight, and adult obesity takes time,” he said.

Still, he expects to see a change one day because of an ordinance change in the community increasing the age to buy tobacco products to 21.

Studies have shown that if people do not start smoking by age 21, a high percentage of them will not smoke at all, he said. That’s why younger people were targeted, and the age to buy tobacco products was raised, he said, because each year they get older, the chance of smoking is less.

The county health rankings, however, are behind a year or two, he said, so that any changes from the recent ordinance will not be visible yet.

On the current health rankings, adult smoking was listed at 23 percent in Wyandotte County, compared to 17 percent in Kansas. Adult obesity was listed at 37 percent here, compared to 32 percent in Kansas.

Besides the ordinance change, a number of other programs have been listed by the local government to improve health in the past year, according to officials.

On the positive side, the health rankings report showed Wyandotte County improved in life span, he said.

Another improvement is the teen pregnancy rate here is lower than the previous report, he said. He said the Wyandotte County Health Department is actively involved in health education for teens, along with the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools. They emphasize responsible decision-making in their educational programs, he said.

There was a big push at the Health Department and at other agencies in Wyandotte County to get uninsured people signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, he said.

“That was successful,” Brecheisen said. “There are more people now with insurance than there used to be in the county, and that’s terrific.”

That might not yet be reflected on the health rankings because they are a couple years behind, he added. The uninsured here were listed at 17 percent on the health rankings, compared to 10 percent statewide.

Violent crime also is listed on the health rankings, with 603 cases reported in Wyandotte County as compared to the Kansas average of 348.

While violent crime is something the Health Department doesn’t specifically deal with, the community health plan will address interventions, he said. It will discuss whether more recreation centers and more after-school programs are needed to prevent crime. He added the current health ranking data on violent crime is from 2012 to 2014.

While the topic of lack of physicians in rural areas is frequently discussed at the state level, urban areas such as Wyandotte County are well below average in the number of primary care physicians per resident.

According to the health rankings report, Wyandotte County had 2,550 residents per primary care physician, with physicians well below the state average of 1,320 to one.

For dentists, Wyandotte County had 2,370 residents per dentist, as compared to the Kansas average of 1,760 to one.

And for mental health providers, Wyandotte County had 720 residents per mental health provider, as compared to the state average of 560 residents per one, according to the county health rankings study.

The study also found health disparities among black and Hispanic residents of Wyandotte County in areas such as infant mortality, child poverty and household income.

Brecheisen said the Health Department led a community health assessment last year to evaluate health needs here.

He said the assessment will be followed by a community health improvement plan, led by the Health Department, that will come out later this year with a three-to-five-year plan for strategies and action steps. The four areas to be focused on by the improvement plan will be safe and affordable housing, access to medical, dental, and mental health care, violence prevention, and education and jobs.

The improvement plan is part of the Health Department’s strategy to become accredited, he said. Once the plan is completed and approved, Brecheisen said he looks forward to implementing the strategies in it.

To see the county health rankings, visit http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/app/kansas/2018/rankings/wyandotte/county/outcomes/overall/snapshot.

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