I often find myself visiting local communities for health related meetings where, despite the specific topic, discussions almost always center around one basic question, “How can we improve the health of our community?” The topics range from obesity to oral health to Medicaid managed care but in general, these communities are working to improve overall health outcomes in their community.

I usually end up asking myself two questions when in those meetings: 1) Where does the community stand on this health issue now? and 2) What other outside factors are at play? Because, it’s difficult to move the health needle in communities without accurate data to measure growth, and without addressing factors indirectly related to health. It’s well known that what gets measured gets done and knowing where a community stands can help them know where they truly need to improve.

Today, the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the third annual County Health Rankings, a project which ranks the health of nearly every county in the nation and shows us what’s making people sick or healthy. Communities across Kentucky can use these rankings to know where their counties stand on health and how they compare to others in the Commonwealth. The rankings serve as a call to action from Oldham County to Owsley, and Martin to McCracken. Even the healthiest counties have areas for improvement.

I encourage community leaders to view the latest health rankings and see how they measure up to their neighbors. And to not only look at the health measures but the other factors in the rankings such as poverty and education, which also impact health.

I say this because studies show that when a family’s income increases, their health improves.  That’s why Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA) is working with the Blueprint for Kentucky’s children to reduce poverty among Kentucky families and in turn, improve their health. Through the support from the County Health Roadmaps project, KYA aims to adopt a refundable state-level Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and to make the state-level Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) refundable in Kentucky. The federal EITC has proven to make a big impact on bringing families above the poverty line. And, when we’re giving tax breaks to big corporations and small businesses alike, it’s crucial that we also give a break to hard-working families struggling to make ends meet. They can be lifted out of poverty, they can improve their health and overall well-being, and the local economy benefits from the money they spend from their return.

No matter what steps you’re taking to improve the health of your community, the County Health Rankings can be a useful tool in answering the question of where you stand. Analyze both the health measures and the other factors contributing to health. With accurate and comprehensive data, we can really improve health outcomes for Kentuckians.

To learn what other communities are doing to improve the health of their residents and how your county can develop plans to address health challenges, visit www.countyhealthrankings.org/roadmaps.