When addressing the overall health of a community, that is often viewed in terms of the big picture — meaning physical, economical and mental health are all factored into its standing.
"Those are things that we look at (with) the Healthy Harvey coalition to sort of, holistically, make sure we're healthy in every way. That's why our mission is working to improve the health, success and safety of all people," said Healthy Harvey coordinator Lorrie Kessler.
Based on the rankings of the healthiest places in the U.S. recently released by smartasset.com, Harvey County is in a pretty good position — rating as one of the top 10 healthiest counties in Kansas based on three main categories: length of life, healthy behaviors and health care access.
Smartasset.com calculated the length of life index by looking at the premature death rate of a county. The rankings also tabulated the percentage of adults who are smokers, obese or report excessive drinking to create a health behaviors index, while the rate of primary care physicians per 100,000 residents and the uninsured rate (percentage of the population under 65 without health insurance) were used to create the health care access index.
All three indices were then used to create a weighted average that found Harvey County to be the ninth healthiest county in Kansas. Nearby McPherson (11th) and Butler (29th) counties also ranked highly, while each fell in the top 10 of one of those categories.
Harvey (fifth) and McPherson (fourth) both ranked in the top 10 of healthy behaviors, with McPherson County featuring the second lowest rate of adult smokers and Harvey County showing the lowest rate of excessive drinking, according to the study. Staff noted intentional efforts, as well as the overall philosophy of the community, played a role in that.
"Something that we do here throughout our various programs includes screening people for tobacco use, so we kind of have a plethora of resources that we try to get out into the community as far as helping people quit," said McPherson County Health Department director Shalei Shea.
"We've worked really hard to make sure that people are not exposed to second hand smoke and that youth do not start smoking. It's been a community effort for as long as I've been working here (for) 19, 20 years, so it's been something we've worked really hard on," Kessler said. "Also, if you look at Harvey County — at our churches and our connectivity, that sort of thing — some places drinking is the norm, and I'm talking excessive drinking not having a glass of wine with dinner, and here it's not. Part of that, I think, is because of our Mennonite background, our close community, those family ties, but then also I think a lot of it is that we worked really hard to keep it from being a problem here."
Meanwhile, Butler County — the largest county in Kansas in terms of square miles — ranked in the top 10 in terms of health care access.
"I would say that is in large part because of having two local hospitals in our county," said Butler County Health Department administrator Jamie Downs."The one here in El Dorado is really good about bringing specialists into this area so that we don't have to travel out of county to see specialists, so a lot of services are available in the community."
Downs, Kessler and Shea were in agreement that access is one of the critical categories that contributes to a healthy community, with the study overall looking at some of the areas the local health departments also prioritize.
For Kessler, the rankings tell her that Harvey County is taking the right approach and the community partnership playing into efforts toward that holistic health are paying off.
Currently, the Harvey County Health Department is working on the community health needs assessment, which helps inform the county's approach to health — and what areas should be prioritized — based on feedback from residents and community partners. Butler and McPherson counties completed their most recent assessment last year, with both calling for improved mental health care. The existence of those assessments, though, illustrates that while the counties may rank highly in terms of overall health, there is still room for growth.
"The McPherson County Coalition is actually getting together. We have meetings about every other month with multiple partners out in the community just trying to figure out what we can do to kind of answer that need in the community, whether that is bringing more resources to town or getting more public awareness out there of what we do already have," Shea said. "That will be interesting, but mental health has kind of been pulled from that community health assessment and a lot of facilities are coming together to try and figure out how we can better our community."
"We just have to keep working on it," Kessler said. "It's not like, 'Oh hey, we're done' and we can sit back and rest on our laurels. No, this is something we have to work on continually. It's never going to be done, but I think we're actually on the right track."
In Butler County, Downs knows it will take work to maintain that spot in the top 10 rankings for health care access given current issues the county is facing, but she agreed collaboration among community partners is important in the long run to address the county's health needs.
Ranking so highly in terms of overall health is a nice feather in the cap for the health departments, but those benefits are also tangible and can be seen in action at the local level in real time, as well as farther down the road.
"A healthier county means that we are having to spend less of our tax dollars on covering medical costs; whether it's EMS transportation issues, whether it's the benefits to help people who are too sick to work. It just saves us money that way, which is the really crass way to think about it, I know, but it's a fact," Kessler said. "If healthy behaviors are what we are modeling to our youth, then that's what our youth learn and that's what they do. So, it just grows, generation by generation."