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Study: Flathead among healthiest counties

March 22, 2019

Flathead County ranked high on a list of healthiest counties in Montana, according to a study released Tuesday titled County Health Rankings and Roadmaps - a report compiled for the purpose of providing snapshot health comparisons between counties in every state for 2019.

The rankings, released every year, were assembled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The ranking system, considered to be one of the most comprehensive, looks at multiple health outcomes and health factors. For overall health outcomes, Flathead County ranked ninth in the state for health outcomes such as length and quality of life, and 20th for health factors such as clinical care and physical environment.

Health outcomes measure length and quality of life by looking at data on premature deaths, low birth weight and more. Health factors measure four main categories: health behaviors such as adult smoking, clinical care such as the number of mental-health providers, social and economic factors such as unemployment rates and physical environment items such as air pollution.

Janna West Kowalski, an action learning coach with County Health Rankings, said the evaluations of health outcomes and health factors offer insights to the timeline of counties’ health.

“Health outcomes tell us how long and how well the community is living and is a good indication of today’s health as it stands. On the other hand, health factors give us a good idea as to the future health of an area,” Kowalski said.

When measuring for overall health factors, the top five counties in Montana beginning with No. 1, are Gallatin, Stillwater, Beaverhead, Lewis and Clark and Carbon.

For overall health outcomes, Flathead County sits much higher than neighboring counties, with Glacier County poised near the bottom of the list at 47, Lake at 41, Sanders at 39 and Lincoln at 32. The top five counties for health outcomes, beginning with No. 1, are Madison, Richland, Gallatin, Jefferson and Dawson.

Eight Montana counties were not ranked because the data sets were unavailable or too small. In total, 48 counties were evaluated.

The data for every state and county is displayed online, where methods for measuring different ranking variables are transparent to the public. One can compare counties side by side. For example, when comparing Flathead and Missoula counties, one can see Flathead residents experience more premature deaths, which ranks us lower in life expectancy than Missoula, but Flathead has fewer adult smokers and a smaller percentage of obese adults, which contributes to Flathead ranking higher in health behaviors.

There are more than 30 categories overall that are measured to determine the rankings. Kowalski said the process for compiling the rankings is “intense.”

“All of our measures come from reputable public health data sources. We have a data and science team and they will start working on next year’s rankings probably around this summer. It’s several months of digging through public health data sources,” Kowalski said.

Overall, the rankings are meant to be a resource showing how where one lives influences him or her quantity and quality of life. Research found that a very significant determinant of one’s overall health is access to affordable housing.

According to a press release for the state of Montana from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, housing is an integral part of the foundation for living long and well. The release states that among Montana’s children living in poverty, 44 percent were living in a household that spends more than half of its income on housing.

“When folks are spending more than 50 percent of what they earn on rent and mortgage there is less left over for critical needs in a household,” Kowalski said.

Critical household necessities that can take a financial backseat to rent include nutritious food items or the budget for gas to get to and from school and doctor appointments. All these factors contribute to a family’s well-being.

“Our homes are inextricably tied to our health,” said Richard Besser, president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This leaves them with fewer dollars to keep their families healthy.”

Flathead County, in particular, has experienced a fair share of struggles with affordable housing. According to one study released in 2018 from the Montana Budget and Policy Center, 46 percent of all renters in Montana are “cost burdened,” or in other words, spend more than 30 percent of their household income on basic housing costs.

According to the report, Flathead County could improve in other areas aside from providing more affordable housing. For example, the valley ranked on the higher side for percentage of driving deaths being alcohol-impaired at 43 percent.

However, above all else, Kowalski emphasized the rankings are meant to be an information vessel for communities in order to help remedy the issues specific to different counties.

“The data is only as useful as the actions it inspires,” Kowalski said. “They are a call to action.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com