Union County has been ranked as the healthiest county in the state, according to a study that measured both premature deaths and the level of healthiness people feel.
The rankings provide opportunities for counties to learn from others how to be healthier, said Angela R. Russell, community engagement lead for County Health Rankings at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
The County Health Rankings University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation work together to put out the rankings annually. The rankings began in counties across Wisconsin in 2003, but went national in 2010.
"We want this to be a call to action," Russell said, "not just a data set that sits on the computer or a one day news story. We want to get the attention of local leaders to improve the health."
Union County has the lowest rate of premature death, which is the years of potential life lost before age 75. There were 4,709 premature deaths per 100,000. The highest rate of premature death was 11,791 per 100,000 in Philadelphia, which received the unhealthiest county ranking in the state.
The other contributing factor is morbidity, which measures poor or fair health, poor physical health days, poor mental health days and low birthweight.
Twelve percent of adults reported poor or fair health in Union County. In Fulton County, 8 percent of adults reported it, as opposed to Greene County with 28 percent reporting.
The average number of physically unhealthy days reported in the past 30 days in Union County is 2.8 days. The lowest in the state is Snyder County with 1.7 days and the highest in the state is Blair County with 5 days.
"A lot of people report feeling good (in Union County)," Russell said.
Feeling good could come from the number of wellness programs offered through Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg and the Community Health Department, said Dr. Douglas Spotts, chief medical officer for the hospital.
"They've done a lot of wellness programs out in the community at various events," he said. "There's a wellness center at the hospital."
The Buffalo Valley Rail Trail program also offers an opportunity for bicyclists and pedestrians to have a scenic view as they exercise from Lewisburg to Mifflinburg.
"It's a safe activity," Spotts said.
For poor mental health days, Union County reported an average of 2.6. Snyder County reported the lowest with 2.3 days and Greene County reported the highest with 5.9 days.
"The health outcomes ranking is a picture of today's health," Russell said. "The health factor ranking contributes to tomorrow's health."
Health factors include health behaviors, social and economic factors, clinical care and physical environment.
In terms of health factors, Union County ranks 16th. Lycoming County ranks 34th.
"There's room for improvement there," Russell said.
The rankings are more than just a number, Russell said. The goal is to get those that aren't as high finding what's wrong and learning how to improve it.
"We know it's hard to live a healthy lifestyle if you're not in a healthy area," she said. "Where you live matters to your health."
The health factors that relate to future health show room for improvement.
In Union County, 23 percent of adults smoke, as compared to 21 percent in the state.
With those trying to stop smoking, Spotts said the hospital tries to help people find a plan that works and follows up to see if it worked.
" 'Oh, well, you failed?' " he said. " 'OK, what can we do to make that more successful next time?' We help them succeed next time."
Thirty percent of adults are obese in the county, with 29 percent in the state. One in four Union County residents are physically inactive, slightly lower than the state average of 26 percent.
"There's a high rate of adult obesity and a high rate of physical inactivity," Russell said.
Sometimes getting people to exercise is no different than trying to get them to take medicine.
"I try to do some scripts for patients," Spotts said. "Exercising at least five times a week ... I physically hand (it to) them like a script. It covers more authority."
Ninety percent of county residents graduate high school, with the state graduating 79 percent. Less than half, 45 percent, county residents have some college education, compared to 59 percent statewide.
Being unemployed and being uninsured are both higher in Union County than in the state.
"I think we ... shouldn't have to fear losing a job means losing my health care benefits," Spotts said. "There are some uninsured and many underinsured. We know it's not cost-effective. ... If we really have a system that rewards preventive (treatment), that would pay off dividends. I want to see that increased."
More Union County residents, 17 percent, are uninsured, compared to 12 percent statewide. However there were only 37 preventable hospital stays in the county, compared to 72 statewide.
The county has a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, slightly higher than the state's 8.7 percent.
The information the study provides comes from national organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, FBI and Dartmouth Institute, Russell said.
"They provide data county by county," she said. "We turn those data into rankings."
Russell invites people to go online to see where the counties are doing well and then talk to others on how to improve.
"People find information and try to do it alone," she said. "We know it takes everyone working together in a coordinated fashion."
The information is not just for government leaders. Individuals can use it to talk to government officials to improve a healthy lifestyle, such as improving walking and biking paths.
"We want everyone to start leading a healthy lifestyle," Russell said. "It helps (to be) in a healthy community."
In the past, one county official in the unhealthiest county in Kansas used the information to be proactive.
"Rather than be upset, he decided to do something," Russell said.
He used the health community initiatives as a starting point. He noticed that one neighborhood did not have a grocery store in 35 years, so he used a tax incentive to open one.
The story shows "the power of data to make powerful change and lasting change," Russell said.
Being No. 1 is not the last step for Spotts. He wants to see the county continue to improve to become in the top five healthiest counties in the country.
"I'm pretty pleased that we are (the healthiest county in the state)," he said. "I wouldn't rest there. We have our work cut out to continue."
One of the things he wants to see is partnering with health providers around the region to collaborate and share successes.
"That's the kind of infection we want to spread," he said.