When Wyandotte County, Kansas finished dead last in a 2009 health rankings study, Mayor Joe Reardon wanted some answers.
The Kansas County Health Rankings showed that Wyandotte County, which includes Kansas City, was the least healthy of 105 counties in the state. The study looked at multiple factors that affect health, including behaviors like smoking, factors in the environment like clean air, access to care, and socio-economic factors like poverty.
By nearly every measure, Wyandotte was an unhealthy place. The county had violent crime, high unemployment, deteriorating housing stock and a high percentage of families, including children, living below the poverty line. The ranking was not entirely unexpected but it stirred the county to action. Reardon, the mayor of the unified government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, used the report as a springboard for change.
He organized a meeting of state and local representatives, public health officials and key researchers at the Kansas Health Institute, a Topeka-based non-profit research group that provides evidence-based analysis to policy-makers on health issues..
But before the group of stakeholders could make any recommendations, they decided they needed more information about the factors that made Wyandotte the worst-ranked county in Kansas.
The Kansas Health Institute got right to work and conducted interviews with public health agencies, social service groups, safety net clinics and others who work in the community. They discovered that the county faces some key problems that result in poor health. For example, Wyandotte:
- Lacks access to healthy, affordable foods.
- Lacks medical and dental clinics.
- Has a high teen birth rate.
In addition, they learned that low-income residents often don’t own a car and the county lacks reliable public transportation that would make it easier for residents to go grocery shopping, visit the doctor or commute to work. In some cases, residents said they walked for more than an hour to reach the closest bus stop, said Caitlin McMurtry, a policy analyst at the Kansas Health Institute.
Reardon, along with other elected officials, public health leaders and county residents are still in the first phase of a multi-pronged strategy to find solutions to the county’s health problems. They’re first using the Rankings to identify health factors that need to be fixed. In the next phase, the stakeholders will develop and then implement a plan, one that will remove the obstacles to good health.