Union County residents are getting healthier overall, but local officials say there is room for improvement.
Shawn Sech, director of health education for the Union County Health Department, said the needle is moving toward a healthy community, but there is still work to do.
The county was ranked ninth in health outcomes and sixth in health factors in Ohio, according to a recently released County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program.
The program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, measures such factors as high school graduation rates, obesity, smoking, unemployment, access to healthy foods, air and water quality, income and teen births; it covers nearly every county in America.
Sech said the information is a snapshot of what's happening in Union County, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
The health department's goal is to look at trend data over a period of time, such as five or 10 years. The yearly data do not show the long-term effects of changes to a system, environment, or policy and procedures.
However, the rankings do draw attention to areas that people may not have previously considered to be elements of health, such as commute times, violent crime and housing problems. They also bring national attention to the importance of community health.
Sech said the Union County Health Department recently put together a Community Health Improvement Plan, and some of the items it identified -- including obesity -- are also highlighted in the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps.
The rankings identify the percentage of adults who report a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30. The top performers of the state's 88 counties (Delaware, Greene and Warren) each reported 26 percent of adults are obese, compared with the statewide average of 30 percent. Union County is at 34 percent.
"We know those numbers have been those numbers for quite a while. Our obesity rate has been right at 34 in the County Health Rankings for the last three years," Sech said.
"We've actually set a goal by 2016 to reduce the rate of obesity in adults by at least 3 percent."
The effort includes promotional campaigns encouraging biking and the use of bike lanes and bike racks where appropriate in the county.
"That's under a bigger umbrella to deal with chronic disease among adults," he said. "But obesity is one of those risk factors for chronic disease, so it has made it into some of our strategic priorities in the Community Health Improvement Plan."
Another area of concern found in the rankings is the number of primary-care physicians in communities. The statewide average is 1,332 people to one physician. The top-performing counties nationally -- one each in Iowa and Washington -- are at 1,051-to-1. Union County's ratio is 2,931-to-1.
"That's actually a conversation we've been having as part of the County Health Improvement Plan. Especially with the Affordable Care Act, we need to make sure there are enough providers in the community," Sech said.
"I don't necessarily mean the health department. The community as a whole and all of those people that make up the health-care system in Union County need to be taking a look at that primary-care rate."
Sech said Union Star, a recently opened community health center, is one way of addressing that need.
The health department last released its own Community Health Assessment in 2011 and is getting ready to publish a new version for 2014-15.
Sech said the County Health Rankings confirm the department is on the right track.
"The County Health Rankings are a very good tool, and we're very happy that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is funding that research," he said. "We know that it's just one piece of all of those tools available to us to determine the community's health."
Union County Health Commissioner Jason Orcena said creating healthy communities is an ongoing process that takes commitment from residents and stakeholders.
"We are fortunate to serve a community where health is a priority," Orcena said." We are happy with the progress that has been made, but we know that more work is needed in order to improve lives and health in Union County."
For more information about County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, go to countyhealthrankings.org/app/ohio/2014/ rankings/outcomes/overall.