This year’s County Health Rankings report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are out, and the results are generally poor for Western New York. WBFO’s Avery Schneider talked with a local health advocate about the results in Erie County.
Erie County has some work to do to improve its standing in the nationwide health survey. This year, the county ranked 57 out of the 62 counties in New York State in overall health outcomes – marking a seven place drop from 2017. While changes can be dependent on how well other counties are progressing, part of the impact to Erie’s rank comes from declines in four out of the eight ranked categories.
Looking at the results, Executive Director Phil Haberstro of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo noted that success in health outcomes requires a strategic effort.
“As a community, you can’t put all your eggs in the basket of education. That’s absolutely one of the key strategic elements to get to the outcomes and the behaviors that we want, but you’ve got to be comprehensive,” said Haberstro. “And that’s very clear in the health promotion literature. Today, we’re talking about universal access to health promotion – not just to health care, to sickness care.”
Erie County’s strongest category, out of the three showing improvement, is clinical care, ranked at number nine in New York State. It’s weakest – physical environment – sits at number 60. But neither category saw more than a two place change from 2017.
The biggest change showed in quality of life, where Erie dropped 13 places from 43 to 56. What led to that decline were reports of poor physical and mental health by residents. Haberstro believes part of the problem stems from community culture.
“I’m not sure that we’ve quite crossed – I think we’re getting closer to having a community culture that supports healthy choices,” said Haberstro. “So I think that’s the big picture piece. Then you can blend that down a little bit to personal responsibility – that factors into the picture – as well as societal responsibility.”
In spite of the decline, Haberstro points to the efforts that are being made to give opportunities for healthier living to residents.
“We’re doing more out with public policy,” he said. “The [City of Buffalo] passed complete streets legislation. Other communities like the Town of Tonawanda, as you know, recently opened last year a terrific rails to trails project. So bit by bit in that realm we’re adding dimensions that can strengthen health and quality of life.”
Of course, it’s not just about physical changes – but situational changes. Haberstro said health promotion needs to take place at all stages of life – from wellness policies like those instituted in the Buffalo public schools reaching children and families, to the workplace and the private sector where he’s looking for more aggressive leadership.
He said it also needs to continue into the age of retirees, and that desire may already be on the path to fulfillment. Largest among the increases in ranked categories was that of length of life, with an improvement of six places from 59 to 63. Haberstro credits some of the result to the baby boomer generation – now in their golden years – expecting better lifestyles.
“The boomers are not going to be satisfied with just playing bingo. And I love bingo, and it’s great for socialization, but you’re going to see the boomers wanting more walkable communities, more access to fresh fruits and vegetables, those kinds of things. And very importantly, for the boomers, the mental health piece,” said Haberstro.
Off all eight counties in Western New York, Erie is not the worst in overall rank. Niagara County placed 59 out of 62. The best in the region is Genesee County with a rank of 19.
Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter @SAvery131.