Appalachian counties continue to dominate lowest level of County Health Rankings in Ky.; most counties moved at least 10 notches

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The annual County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report, showing how the health status of every county in the United States compares to that of every other county in the state, has been released.

Many Kentucky counties showed little change, but 76 of the state’s 120 counties shifted up or down by at least 10 notches in the rankings, which essentially measure of how long and how well we live.

The rankings measure health outcomes, gauged by life expectancy and measures of quality of life; and health factors, such as access to physicians and areas to exercise, tobacco use, children living in poverty, violent crime, long commutes and other environmental factors. The report is issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The rankings are meant to be viewed more as a general categorization of a county’s health status, rather than making specific comparisons with counties that are relatively close in the rankings. Because the differences in rankings for most counties are so small that they are statistically insignificant, the researchers have placed counties in four groups of 30 counties each, called quartiles (each with one-fourth of the total of 120 counties).

The bottom quartile for both health outcomes and health actors in Kentucky continues to be made up of almost entirely Appalachian counties. The exceptions for health outcomes are Carroll County, between Louisville and Cincinnati, and Fulton County, at the state’s western tip. The relatively poor county is the only non-Appalachian county in the bottom quartile for health factors.

In health outcomes, Fulton County moved down 17 spots from last year’s report to rank 116th. Owsley County ranks 117th, followed by Perry County, which dropped 22 spots from last year’s ranking, and Wolfe and Breathitt counties. The last four counties form a cluster.

Oldham and Boone, two of Kentucky’s wealthiest counties, continue to be the top two in health outcomes, as they have been since 2011. No. 3, Scott County, has ranked between fifth and eighth since 2011. Campbell County in Northern Kentucky ranked fourth for the second year in a row and Calloway County, home of Murray, ranked fifth after moving up 19 notches from last year’s rankings.

Oldham and Boone are also the top two counties for health factors, and have been since 2015. They have been in the top five since 2011. Woodford, Campbell and Fayette counties are ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively, for the second year in a row.

The bottom five counties for health factors are Breathitt, Lee, Clay, Harlan and McCreary, all in Appalachian Kentucky.

Some big changes in health outcomes

Altogether, 26 Kentucky counties improved more than 10 notches in health outcomes from last year, and 13 of them improved by more than 20 places; 27 of them dropped more than 10, and 12 of those dropped by more than 20.

Edmonson County improved the most for health outcomes, with a 50-notch jump up to No. 31 and the second quartile. However, its No. 81 rank last year was not typical for the county, which had been in the second quartile for health outcomes most years since 2011, so its latest rank is a return to form.

Several counties showed big improvements that moved them into the first quartile for health outcomes. Graves County improved 29 notches, to No. 28 from No. 57; Carlisle moved up to 20th from 45th; and Livingston moved up to 26th from 46th.

Breckinridge County also saw a 37-notch gain (to 35th from 72nd) in outcomes that moved it into the second quartile.

Because the rankings are relative, county to county, they tend to have about as many drops as gains. Bracken County saw the greatest drop in health outcomes, 46 notches, to 81st from 35th. Clark County had the second greatest drop for outcomes (30th to 70th), moving from the first quartile to the third.

Two Appalachian coalfield counties also saw big drops in outcomes, which moved them into the bottom quartile. Johnson fell to 96th from 71st, and Whitley dropped to 100th from 67th.

Some big changes in health factors

Twelve Kentucky counties improved more than 10 notches for health factors, with three improving by more than 20. Eleven counties fell more than 10 notches; only one moved down by more than 20.
Livingston and Crittenden counties showed the most improvement for health factors. The adjoining counties in West Kentucky each moved up 24 slots into the second quartile. Livingston moved to 46th from 70th and Crittenden moved to 54th from 78th.

Allen County’s 17-notch improvement in health factors moved it into the 55th from 72nd, and into the second quartile. Simpson County moved into the first quartile by rising to 29th from 39th.

McLean County had by far the biggest drop in health factors, falling 24 notches to 80th from 56th, which moved it down to the third quartile. Gallatin County fell to 65th from 53rd and Montgomery County fell to 62nd from 46th, both moving to the third quartile. Henry County dropped to 38th from 25th, moving it to the second quartile.

The report challenges Kentucky counties to take this data and turn it into action. Evidence-based resources to do that can be found in the “Take Action To Improve Health” section of its website. Here are the rankings (click image to enlarge):

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