Addressing High Rates of Obesity in Muscatine County, Iowa

March 25, 2011

Every five years, all counties in Iowa are required to perform a health needs assessment, then submit a detailed health improvement plan to the state department of public health. This year, health officials in Muscatine County were excited to have a new set of data to incorporate into their planning — the detailed information from the 2010 County Health Rankings.

The rankings — where Muscatine ranked 57th in health outcomes and 77th in health behaviors, out of 99 counties — weren’t the only data source used to craft the health improvement plan, according to Mary Odell, Muscatine County’s director of public health.

“But the information from the County Health Rankings was used extensively,” she said. “I personally think that the County Health Rankings gave us better access to really timely, relevant and really meaningful data that helped us decide where to focus our efforts.”

The rankings were also distributed broadly throughout the community to encourage feedback and local health improvement efforts. To begin, Odell shared the county’s ranking information with area residents at a meeting with the Muscatine Community Health Association, a non-profit group designed to inform and educate community members about local health issues.

The meeting highlighted several areas for improvement, most notably obesity. According to the County Health Rankings, 28 percent of adults in Muscatine County are obese. Officials also focused on what they dubbed “family effectiveness”, a category that encompasses several factors, including the county’s teen birth rate (57, well above the target rate of 19). During the gathering, members of the health association decided the best way to use the information was to make it visible to as many people as possible.

“At the end of that meeting, members of the County Health Association appointed a committee to figure out a mechanism to disseminate Muscatine County’s ranking information throughout the county,” Odell said.

The committee drafted a brochure detailing the county’s ranking and sent it to roughly 500 area residents, including all Chamber of Commerce members and multiple non-profit organizations, Odell said.

“Lots of people responded to it,” she said. “I know that a number of those non-profits used the information from the County Health Rankings in grant writing for committees they had on specific issues that were identified in the rankings.”

Task forces and programs to address the county’s areas of concerns are just starting to rev up, and many of them existed before the Rankings, Odell said. But many, including a coalition to tackle obesity and a mental-health task force, will incorporate the Rankings data into their plans. And local health officials are looking forward to the release of the next County Health Rankings in order to gauge if any health benchmarks have moved, and to see where Muscatine County needs to go in the future.

“One of the things we’re really striving for is to find a mechanism in the data to show that we’re moving the needle, for example, in obesity,” Odell said. “So I’m actually really excited to see this year’s County Health Rankings. I’m thrilled that that’s going to occur.”