by James A. Bacon
When corporations make decisions on where to expand, they consider a long check-list of factors such as availability of labor, workforce skills, transportation access and the cost of real estate, among many others. Add a new one to the list: community health.
Says James S. Marks, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in an interview with New Public Health: “Business pays for health care. Health care is a cost. Good health is an investment, and a base on which you can build a successful business. We know business looks at the healthiness of a community before they invest there. They are looking at the obesity rate — because they see that as a proxy for future health care costs.”
It just so happens that Robert Wood Johnson, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, publishes county health rankings that make it easier than ever for corporations to gauge community health. The database doesn’t rank states, but it does rank counties (and Virginia cities) within a particular state in two ways, by health outcomes and health factors.
Health outcomes reflect actual levels of health as measured by (a) mortality, the number of people dying before they reach average life expectancy, and (b) morbidity, as measured by days of poor physical health, days of poor mental health, low birthweight and the like. Health factors encompass indicators that influence health outcomes, such health behaviors (smoking, physical inactivity, drinking, sexual activity), access to health care, social and economic factors (unemployment, education), and physical environment (air pollution, fast food restaurants).
No surprise, the healthiest regions of the state are Northern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, Charlottesville-Albemarle, suburban Richmond and suburban Hampton Roads. The least healthy are the coalfield counties and inner cities like Petersburg and Richmond.
View a broad Virginia overview, including basic county rankings here. Explore detailed county-by-county statistics in an interactive map here. Delve into a database of public policies that have positive impacts on health here.
Bacon’s bottom line: Improving community health is a worthy goal on its own terms: Good health is a basic good for everyone. It’s also justified on the grounds of fiscal responsibility: Better health translates into lower public spending on Medicaid, Medicare and other public programs. Thirdly, as Marks observes, community health initiatives are justified on the grounds of economic development: Better health translates into lower rates of absenteeism, lower health insurance costs and more competitive businesses.
In July I called upon Virginians to commit to making the Old Dominion the healthiest state in the country. Based on a 2011 United Health Foundation survey, our state ranked 20th in the country. I argued that community health was a cause that liberals, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans could rally behind. That logic is as true as ever. Get cracking, Virginia!