Juneau County’s Health Rankings Offer Opportunity to Improve

January 31, 2013
Juneau County, a small rural county in the southern part of Wisconsin, ranked either last or near the bottom in a series of health check-ups issued by the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute (UWPHI).
Juneau County Health Director Barbara Theis wasn’t happy about the poor scores but over time she began to see the report as an opportunity to improve the county’s performance.

After studying the 2008 Rankings, Theis learned that Juneau County scored poorly on a number of measures and would have to address the following weak areas:
  • People living in Juneau tend to die younger than people living in the healthiest counties.
  • Nearly 22 percent of adults smoke cigarettes, leading to higher rates of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.
  • Nearly 27 percent of residents in Juneau were obese, a rate that was higher than the state average of 24 percent.
To bring up the scores, Theis knew that the County Health Department and other stakeholders would have some tough societal problems to tackle. “We have lots of children living in poverty, high unemployment and a big problem with high school drop-outs,” she says. Research suggests that people who have better access to educational opportunities often end up in better paying jobs. People with higher levels of education also are more likely to have the opportunity to adopt and maintain healthier behaviors like taking a daily walk, she adds.
But leaders in Juneau, including those on the commerce committee and in the educational field, have leveraged that information to develop solutions for bringing jobs into the region. They also are looking for strategies that can help keep young Juneau residents in school, a step that would help employers in the region find workers with higher levels of education.
The County Health Department also has jumped in with an innovative strategy to help more young mothers to adopt healthier behaviors. The Rankings indicated that nearly 30 percent of Juneau County pregnant women smoked cigarettes, a rate that was twice as high as the state average. Theis says the county also was struggling with a teen birth rate that was too high.
In addition, Theis saw statistics showing that all residents of the county, including young women, had higher than average rates of obesity, a serious health problem that is associated with high risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
To address all of those problems in one high-risk group, Theis homed in on high-risk pregnant women. These young women were taught about the health risks of smoking and the importance of being active and eating healthy foods, habits that can reduce the risk of obesity.