Worcester County ranked among least healthy in state
A new set of national health rankings puts Worcester County among the least healthy counties in Massachusetts.
Created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, the eighth annual "County Health Rankings" lists Worcester 9th out of the 14 counties in the state in health outcomes and 11th in health factors.
Worcester County didn't perform badly in all categories; it was ranked 6th in the state for clinical care services, for example, and 8th in social and economic factors like high school graduation rates, unemployment, and childhood poverty rates. The county also had the 8th highest length of life ranking in the state.
But Worcester is worse off in the quality of life and health behaviors – ranked 11th apiece – as well as the region's physical environment, which came in 12th in the state, according to the rankings.
Janice B. Yost, president & CEO of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, said those results aren't surprising, considering health is determined strongly by socioeconomic factors like level of income and educational attainment.
"It allows you to live in good housing, afford fresh foods," she said, which in turn help determine how healthily a person is able to live.
But Ms. Yost also pointed out Worcester County is still doing better than most of the rest of the country, considering Massachusetts itself is one of the healthiest states in the U.S.
"In other states, I think you would find something much like Hampton and Bristol" to be the typical level of health, she said, not at the bottom like those counties are in Massachusetts. "The truth is we're in pretty good shape. And we're working to get better."
"It's always going to be comparative" within Massachusetts, Ms. Yost said. "You're going to have to bump someone else down (to rise in the rankings). But everyone else is working hard at this, too."
By most metrics tracked over time by the County Health Rankings, Worcester County has been getting healthier in the last five years. Unemployment, air pollution, violent crime, physical inactivity levels, the number of uninsured, and preventable hospital stays have all declined over that period, while high school graduation rates, diabetes monitoring and mammogram screenings have increased.
But the region is getting worse in some categories, with recent upward trends in childhood poverty and adult obesity, for instance, according to the rankings.
Joanne L. Calista, executive director of the Worcester-based Center for Health Impact, said behavioral health issues like depression and suicide are also still a big challenge in the region. There is a need for more health care services in general, as well.
"We have many services available in our communities, but we need more, and we need more in a wider range of settings," she said.
At the same time, Ms. Calista said efforts to improve health care and health outcomes in Worcester County shouldn't overshadow "the tremendous assets we have in this community" already. And despite the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's reputation as a "very credible source," rankings shouldn't always be taken at face value, she said.
"I think it's always helpful to have data," she said. "And it's always helpful to look at it with a critical eye."