County’s health ranking slowly climbing upward

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor

Over the last two years, in 2010 and 2011, Morrison County was ranked 80th out of 85 ranked counties in Minnesota.

The new rankings are out for 2012 and the county, while not making major progress, is indeed making progress, being ranked 78th out of 84 ranked counties.

“It’s not like we jumped 10 or 20 points on the scale, but we did move up — that’s a plus,” said Bonnie Paulsen, director of Morrison County Public Health.

The rankings reflect different things in the county — both in the physical environment and environmental quality, said Paulsen.

Behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol use and inactivity are tracked, as well as the level of education, the unemployment rate, income level, family, clinical access to care, motor vehicle crash death rate, sexually transmitted infections and teen birth rate, among others.

While she hasn’t had time to look over the findings and to compare them with past findings, she feels the county is making steps in the right direction with education.

“I think it is very helpful that we are focusing much more on some of that prevention, environmental strategies we’re looking at and policy changes. I do think that those are helping,” she said.

Some of the prevention programs have to do with alcohol, tobacco and other drug education programs, as well as the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) offered.

These factors “Will help us build a healthier community if we can continue down the road,” she said.

“None of the things we are working on are going to change quickly overnight,” she said.

“A lot of these are going to be cultural changes that need to change in the community that are going to make it better for us as we move down the road,” she said.

“Morrison County has a fairly high rate of tobacco use (24 percent) compared to the state (18 percent),” said Paulsen. Nationally, tobacco use is rated at 14 percent.

“We’ve got a long way to go. If we have 24 percent smokers versus 14 percent, if that’s part of our rating, we’ll be lower because we have an unhealthy activity going on that is truly detrimental to people’s health,” she said.

Perhaps tobacco cessation programs could help with that use and provide for healthier rankings in the future, she said.

A community health assessment conducted showed alcohol use was a concern. That concern may not be unfounded, as in the health rankings, 24 percent were found to drink excessively, compared to 8 percent nationally and 19 percent in the state.

To address that issue in the future, she pointed to the Pierz Area Coalition (PAC) and the new Stand Up 4U Coalition in Little Falls, that promote teens making healthy choices.

“Binge drinking and those kind of statistics in Pierz have dropped,” she said. “If we stop doing those activities, if we don’t continue this education, until we make true cultural change across the whole county, it’s not going to be as sustainable as it would be if we did it for 10, 20 years.”

Health education must be done over a long period of time to facilitate change, she said.

To make exercising easier and more natural (Morrison County ranks 22 percent in physical inactivity, with the national percent at 21 and the state 19), Paulsen said building walking and biking paths would help.

“People are more likely to walk and bike, that will make us healthier. If there is no place to walk and bike safely, it’s less likely,” she said.

Getting kids to walk and bike to school now will impact health ratings in the future.

“If we can get people to say this is just something I do every morning — like brushing teeth — exercise becomes part of a lifestyle,” said Paulsen.

In the county, 19 percent of the residents considered themselves in poor or fair health. The national benchmark is 10 percent and the state’s at 11 percent. So too, county residents report a higher number of poor physical health days at 3.4, compared to 2.6 nationally and 2.7 in the state.

Compared to national (2.3) and the state (2.7), 4.5 percent of county residents reported having poor mental health days.

While Public Health can step in to educate and raise awareness to bring about change in some of the areas ranked in a county’s health, there are those that Public Health cannot help change.

“Like economic change and the job market, bringing manufacturing in,” said Paulsen. “Education — who’s graduating from high school, who has college degrees. Those are some of the things Public Health can’t work on.”

Morrison County’s unemployment rate is at 9.5 percent, compared to 5.4 percent nationally and 7.3 percent statewide.

The county’s high school graduation rate is higher than the state’s at 83 percent (state 76), but it is lower in those who have some college at 57 percent. Nationally, 68 percent have some college and statewide, 72 percent report some college.

“What they’re trying to say is, ‘Where you live, matters,’” said Paulsen.

The question is, she said, “How do we make our community healthier that will give us a better health outcome in the future?”