Local health officers have a common recipe for keeping their counties’ children healthy: Make sure children and their parents have ready access to doctors. Provide prenatal care for young mothers. Educate families on healthy habits. Keep kids active and in school.
“One of the drivers of economic health is the physical and mental health of the community,” said Dr. Robert Oldham, Placer County health officer. “Having an approach that looks at many different factors – getting more into the schools, environments that support physical activity, education – there’s not one intervention that has an impact.”
It’s a blueprint that placed Placer, Yolo and El Dorado counties among America’s 50 Healthiest Counties for Kids 2014-2015, according to recently released rankings published in U.S. News and World Report. Placer County ranked 17th among the nation’s top 50 counties; Yolo County placed 30th; El Dorado County was No. 43. All three – Placer (2); Yolo (5); and El Dorado (7) – finished in the top 10 among California’s 58 counties.
Marin County was the nation’s healthiest county for children. Sacramento County lagged in the middle of the pack among California’s 58 counties and was absent from the national ranking.
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Compiled with help from the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the U.S. News findings look at a handful of markers including birthrate, infant mortality, teen birthrate, children living in poverty and injury death rate. The rankings also consider data such as availability of medical and mental health care; socioeconomic factors; and environmental factors including air and water quality.
The data are important not only as a snapshot of children’s and community health, say advocates, but also for other communities that hope to learn from the counties’ successes, said Kelly Hardy, senior director for health policy at Oakland-based Children Now, whose own California County Scorecard measures children’s well-being across the state.
Children “are canaries in the coalmine for a community’s health status,” Hardy said. “These reports make a difference. Counties have a chance to share their stories and give some ideas for others to emulate. It’s useful, if only for thoughts about what is working.”
The results aren’t created in a vacuum, however. Socioeconomic factors also play a huge role, and affluent counties were ranked among the nation’s healthiest. In the four-county region, Placer County has the highest median household income, $73,356, while Sacramento County has the area’s lowest median household income at $55,386.
“The relative wealth of a community helps. There are fewer numbers of low-income folks, (so) communities are able to direct their resources in a more targeted way,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California. “It’s indicative of California. The question is how do we get other areas up to that standard? What can we learn so that we can bring up those standards in communities that are lagging behind?”
In Placer, where teen birthrates are less than half of the U.S. median and where just 6 percent of babies are born underweight – 2 percentage points lower than the national median – health officials point to longstanding efforts in prenatal education.
In Yolo County, only a small percentage of residents smoke; the numbers of low-birth-weight births are shrinking; and access to primary care physicians remains high. El Dorado County has high numbers of residents with health insurance and children who stay in school – a key factor, said Dr. Alicia Paris-Pombo, El Dorado County health officer.
“A big difference is the school system,” Paris-Pombo said. “Many (youths) continue to be in the system and finish high school. That makes a big difference.”
Vulnerable populations for teen pregnancy and health risks, for instance, are “those who are out of school and out of work,” she said.