How healthy is your county? It’s time to check out the 2021 County Health Rankings to find out! This nationwide rankings report describes the overall health of each county and ranks the healthiest county (No. 1) through the least healthy county in each state.

These health rankings can help counties understand what factors are influencing the health of their residents. There is an overall ranking composed of a ranking for health outcomes (based on length of life and quality of life) and a ranking for health factors (health behaviors, access to and quality of health care, various social and economic factors, and the physical environment).

Social and economic factors, such as social isolation, high school graduation, and employment, can create conditions that either support or are barriers to individual health.

Among South Heartland’s four counties — Adams, Clay, Nuckolls and Webster — Nuckolls County ranks the best (39th out of 82 ranked counties) and Clay County has the most opportunity for improvement, ranking 65th.

If we dig a little deeper, we see that each of the four counties has strengths. Adams County is strong in the ratio of residents to primary care physicians, the ratio of residents to mental health providers, breast cancer screening rates and flu vaccination rates. Clay County is strong in preventable hospital stays, breast cancer screening rates and high school completion rates. Nuckolls County’s strengths include the ratio of residents to primary care providers, preventable hospital stays, breast cancer screening rates, and the county has low levels of particulate air pollution. Webster County is strong in preventable hospital stays, breast cancer screening rates, high school completion rates and the county has low levels of particulate air pollution.

One take-home message from the county health rankings report is that where we live, learn, work, worship and play affects each of us and can determine our health and life expectancy. Each of the four rural South Heartland counties has challenges — factors that could be addressed to help the county be healthier. But how?

One role of a public health department is to help our communities identify health issues (for example, with the County Health Rankings report) and set health goals. The health department also helps communities plan how to take action with proven, science-based programs and interventions.

For example, the 2021 County Health Rankings report shows that adult smoking and adult obesity are, again, two of the health outcomes that are a challenge in all four of our counties. We know that obesity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, so SHDHD sets goals to help more people learn if they are at risk for developing these diseases and to ensure proven programs, such as Smart Moves Diabetes Prevention Program and the Hastings YMCA’s Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring Program, are available for people wanting to make lifestyle changes to prevent these diseases.

South Heartland is working to prevent obesity by improving access to and promoting healthy foods and beverages in grocery stores and vending machines, encouraging adoption of worksite wellness policies that support employees to be physically active at work, and facilitating community efforts to design walking routes and paths to make it easier to be physically active in the community. South Heartland supports child care facilities and schools in developing programs to get kids eating healthy and moving more, and we are implementing the evidence-based Building Healthy Families program for family-focused obesity prevention.

The health department partners with many other organizations and government agencies to address health and safety improvement opportunities together. In “public health language,” we say that one of our jobs is to be the “chief health strategist” for our communities. Working together, we can build healthier communities. But we need your help to get there.

SHDHD works with governmental services, elected leaders, schools and colleges, hospitals, healthcare providers and behavioral health providers. We collaborate with faith-based, civic and human services organizations. We partner with businesses and worksites, nonprofits, volunteers, and many others who contribute in large and small ways to the public’s health.

And, because we work together, our communities have many local achievements to be proud of. We collaborate on preparedness and response for natural disasters and public health emergencies, such as floods and pandemic illnesses. We are offering classes to reduce falls in older adults. We are reducing exposure to environmental hazards, such as lead and radon. We are improving screening for chronic diseases and cancer.

We are also containing and preventing infectious diseases and we are helping people to receive vaccinations for preventable diseases. We are facilitating safer and healthier workplaces and providing services to support healthier moms and babies. We are helping individuals and families to access health care and behavioral health services, safe housing, and other basic services. And, we are empowering individuals in all walks of life to live healthy lifestyles.

Check out the County Health Rankings and consider how you or your organization can take action to help your county be healthier. Working together, with the right partners and policy makers, we can help our next generation be healthier than the one before.

For more information about your county’s health ranking, visit: www.countyhealthrankings.org/.

Michele Bever is executive director for South Heartland District Health Department, serving Adams, Clay, Nuckolls and Webster counties in Nebraska. She may be reached at 1-877-238-7595.