How healthy are people in the Northwoods?
The answer depends on what you look at – and where.
Newly released research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that when it comes to health outcomes – the length and quality of life – residents in Oneida and Vilas counties generally fare worse than many others in the state.
That’s not the whole story, however.
The study, which examined the health of nearly every county in the United States, ranked Oneida County in the bottom half of counties in the state for health outcomes – 50th among Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Vilas County ranked 54th.
The lower the number, the better the health.
Oneida County’s position is an improvement from last year, but the county’s ranking for the past five years has stayed fairly consistent in the low to mid 50s.
Vilas County’s ranking had a greater degree of fluctuation. Last year’s ranking was 35, while in 2011 the ranking was 55.
But the study also looked at health factors, and those are a different story for both counties.
Health factors include a wide variety of measures, including the physical environment, such as air and water quality; social and economic factors such as employment and community safety; access and quality of clinical care; and health behaviors such as tobacco use, alcohol and drug consumption and diet and exercise.
Oneida County scored relatively well in this category – 21st out of the state’s 72 counties. Though the number is slightly higher compared to last year, it is a substantial improvement from 2010 when the county ranked 42nd.
“In the last five years we have definitely seen an improvement in our health behaviors significantly,” Linda Conlon, Oneida County’s Health Department director, said.
Indeed, Oneida County received one of the best rankings among northern Wisconsin counties this year.
Vilas County did essentially the opposite, according to the study. In 2010, Vilas County ranked 29th while this year it shot up to 45th place, though the county did score third best in the state for physical environment.
Gina Egan, Vilas County Public Health Department director, said she was not surprised by the study’s findings. She also noted that Vilas County has a population that is older than the state average – and older people tend to have more health issues compared to the young, she said.
“Sometimes when you have an older population, as we do, your data is going to be much different than if you, say, looked at the Madison area,” Egan said. “We have a high incidence of chronic disease in our county.”
But Egan also pointed to progress. The county is in its second year of a five-year health improvement plan, which is targeting many of the issues identified in the study by bringing together health care providers, hospitals and other partners. Also notable, she said, is the Northwoods Dental Project, a mobile dental service that is setup at schools so children can have easy access to dental care and education.
“There are some really good things happening in Vilas County,” Egan said.
And that’s one of the strong points of the study: identifying where progress can be made.
Conlon said the study’s rankings provide a “good snapshot in time” of where a county’s health is at and what needs to be improved.
“It’s important to go back to see if we’ve made some improvement, but it’s especially important to look forward to see what we need to do, what strategies we need to implement to make the most positive changes in our community to make it healthier,” Conlon said.
In Oneida County, some of those changes are likely to focus on smoking, adult obesity and physical inactivity – health issues that have been particularly pronounced. Unemployment and children who live in poverty are also growing concerns, Conlon said.
Addressing those problems, however, takes time. And just as financial investments often require a long-term view, so it is with public health.
“Progress is really slow,” Conlon said. “Many things can’t happen overnight.”
According to the study, Ozaukee, Kewaunee, Portage, Taylor and Door counties are the five healthiest counties in Wisconsin. The five least-healthy counties: Menominee, Milwaukee, Adams, Marquette and Forest.
Nationally, the rankings show that people living in the least healthy counties are twice as likely to have shorter lives as people living in the healthiest counties. Unhealthy counties also have twice as many children living in poverty and twice as many teen births as the healthiest counties, according to the study.
Jonathan Anderson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.