KANSAS CITY, Ks. – The news of Google's fiber-optic network coming to Kansas City, Kansas has captured a lot of attention. But KCK has also been in the spotlight for a very different reason. The same day of Google's big announcement last week, a national report ranked Wyandotte - for the second year in a row - as the least healthy county in all of Kansas. But how the county's responding to this is making some local, and even national, waves.
When cities and regions get ranked, for whatever reason, their leaders pay attention. At least that was the case for Unified Government mayor, Joe Reardon, after learning where Wyandotte placed in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's county health rankings list for Kansas last year.
"How can we be last," said Reardon. "We have the University of Kansas Medical Center, Providence Hospital."
Health vs. Healthcare
The study, now in its second year, looked at more than just the presence of medical providers. Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino is a senior fellow at the Kansas Health Institute:
"KU is obviously a top-notch center that rivals the best one in the country, there's no doubt about it," says Dr. Pezzino." The way this model [for the health rankings] is constructed, and it's based on research published over several decades, access to clinical care and availability of clinical care in general only accounts for a relatively small portion of health of the population [as a whole]."
So the rankings also took things like income and education levels into account. It examined rates of obesity, infant mortality, and smoking - even the region's physical environment and the availability of healthy foods.
County Changes its Approach
Reardon says he had something of an epiphany when he reviewed the findings.
"As mayor, mayors are so focused on economic development and how are we going to grow that community," says Reardon. "And what's changed for me with the health care rankings and where we are in Kansas City, Kansas, is if we really want to reach the great places we want to reach, it's not just about bringing that next business. It's about making sure we're paying attention to the quality of life of our citizens, to the health of our citizens."
Reardon says he now believes focusing on improving the health conditions in the county will allow more residents to reap the rewards of any economic development coming their way.
Health Taskforce Created
Following last year's report, Reardon established a healthy communities initiative. The project started with a series of public forums aimed at getting community input about the rankings and how to make improvements. About 50 people attended one at Donnelly College last June, including resident Roslyn Brown.
"Of course we have got a lot of work to do to get that healthy attitude back in our communities," Brown said right after the forum. "Getting our children back out on the streets, enjoying life, and trying to be a little bit healthier as far as getting out and being more active - and also eating better. We all know that's a big part of all our problems."
Brown said she's optimistic about the situation.
"The fact that we have people interested in making a difference in our community, I think that's important," Brown said. "And I think the more we talk about it - if just sit back and say who's going to do what, then nothing will happen. So if we get involved and see ways we can connect - and basically collaboration is the key - we can't wait on somebody else to do it, we have to be part of making a difference in our own community."
After the forums, committees formed to make sense of the input and come up with concrete plans. Reardon says the process is now at the point of going from those conversations and assessments to action. He says one of the first things to happen is the Wyandotte Board of Commissioners will consider adopting a "complete streets" resolution later this month. Reardon says the idea is to assess road repairs and new street projects beyond what's good for driving.
"The concept is, don't just look at the road as a place for the car," says Reardon. "What does that mean to connectivity of people? Are you paying attention to the sidewalk? Are you paying attention to where bikes might be? Are you paying attention to where transit interacts with the street?"
In the National Spotlight
All of these efforts, meanwhile, are gaining some national attention.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been closely following Wyandotte county over the last year and sharing what's been going on there with other communities around the country. The organization made a video about the local efforts. The group invited Mayor Reardon to be featured in its national teleconference release of the rankings last Wednesday, hours before he appeared at Wyandotte High School for Google's fiber-optic announcement.
For Many, Rankings Not a Surprise
The county's low health status may have been a surprise to city officials, but local organizations like El Centro, Inc. have known about these problems for years. That's according to Executive Director Mary Lou Jaramillo, who recently spoke at a Latino health meeting at KU Med Center.
"Before the rankings were released, El Centro was well aware of the health disparities in our community and our county," Jaramillo said. "The evidence walked through our doors every day: the uninsured, untreated illnesses, unsafe neighborhoods, few parks and playgrounds, low educational attainment, poverty, lack of access to services - whether real or perceived."
She and other groups have already been trying to address these challenges. El Centro has established a network of community health educators, for example, who are helping their neighbors, friends, and family, prevent and manage chronic diseases like diabetes. Another group recently created a new soccer league and is in the process of developing more outdoor athletic space.
Speaking at that same meeting, Dr. Ed Ellerbech, chair of KU's preventative medicine program, said the widespread attention from the health rankings is also bringing new pressures for collaborations and change.
"We're under a microscope," Dr. Ellerbech said. "And we will be under a microscope because when our mayor is televised on this national video conference, it really sets a standard we need to follow."
So with all this momentum, and as local officials delve into an area they've not focused on before, perhaps Wyandotte County will find itself in the future moving away from the bottom as Kansas' least healthy county.
Funding for health care coverage on KCUR has been provided by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
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