Whatcom County is the fifth healthiest county in Washington state - holding steady from last year - according to the fourth annual report that ranks nearly every county in the nation.
The 2013 County Health Rankings assesses how healthy residents are and how long they live to arrive at an overall ranking. It is a collaboration of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"We're staying pretty much the same," said Dr. Astrid Newell, community health manager for Whatcom County Health Department, of this year's ranking compared to 2012.
"Again, we compare very favorably across the nation and against other counties," she said.
The rankings show that Whatcom County is healthier than 90 percent of all counties in the U.S. in a number of measurements. Those areas are premature death, low birth weight, adult obesity, physical inactivity, teen birth rate, and preventable hospital stays.
Premature deaths occur when people die before age 75, according to the report, and many of the deaths are considered preventable.
But Whatcom County struggles in other areas, falling below the healthiest benchmarks nationally.
Those include poor physical and mental health days, excessive drinking, the number of uninsured, unemployment, children in poverty, and limited access to healthy foods (percent of population who are low income and don't live close to a grocery store).
"We do have some challenges. They remain the same challenges," Newell said.
"The social factors have a significant impact on health. Those remain concerns for our community," she added, referring to such issues as children living in poverty, unemployment and the lack of insurance.
There are 39 counties in Washington state. The 10 healthiest counties - starting with the top - are Kittitas, San Juan, Whitman, Island, Whatcom, King, Jefferson, Chelan, Thurston and Snohomish, according to the report.
The 10 in poorest health, starting with the least healthy, are Ferry, Okanogan, Pacific, Grays Harbor, Yakima, Cowlitz, Mason, Pend Oreille, Stevens and Lincoln.
The hope is that the rankings will spur those in the public and private sector to work together to address the health needs of their communities.
That's the case in Whatcom County, where the health department and PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center are collaborating on a Community Health Improvement Plan.
Many of the issues the county faces are in the plan, public health officials said.
"Our community, we really are healthy overall. But these issues of disparity, how can we concentrate some resources to support populations that experience disparities," Newell said. "It's a matter of how do we align, how do we pool, and how do we target our resources to most effectively impact health."
She said much of the discussion among those trying to improve health for all Whatcom County residents has focused on supporting children and families.
Helping children would have the greatest impact, according to Newell, because it gives them a foundation of health for the rest of their lives.
READ THE REPORT
See how healthy Whatcom County is compared to other counties in Washington state by reading the full County Health Rankings online at countyhealthrankings.org.
Reach Kie Relyea at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2234.