It seems like every day a new report is trying to explain the state of the world in helpful—and sometimes pointless—ways. (Remember when the “Here’s what the electoral map would look like if only X voted” maps went viral?) When I first got an email about the County Health Rankings, an analysis of health and its contributing factors within each American county, I wasn’t sure which category this dataset would fall into. Counties don’t strike me as the best comparison unit, and this report only calculates rankings within each state. That means your number one ranking in health factors—variables that could influence the overall health of a location, such as the amount of binge drinking, the child poverty rate, and the ratio of dentists to residents—gives you bragging rights over every other county in the state, but doesn’t reveal how you compare to the national average.
But then I noticed that Denver County isn’t ranked first in the state, at least in any positive way. In fact, it sits at number 38 for health outcomes (think: the rate of premature death or how many poor mental health days residents have on average per month) and 43 for health factors, out of the 58 Colorado counties that were ranked. This seemed odd to me; you would think a state’s hub—in this case, the capital and the most populous city—would have the greatest amount of resources to help its denizens stay healthy. When I looked at King County, home to Seattle, a city similar in size and demographics to Denver, that theory seemed to hold true: It’s ranked second in health outcomes and first in factors within the state of Washington. In California, which boasts nearly the same number of counties as Colorado, San Francisco County sits at 11th and fifth—not quite as high but still nowhere near as low as Denver. What gives?
After delving further into the data, I pinpointed some of the factors that caused us to land lower on the list:
- Sexually transmitted infections: The number of newly diagnosed chlamydia (one of the most common STIs) cases per 100,000 people is staggeringly high in Denver County. Maybe that’s because the Mile High City’s home to so many young transplants who are more casual about their sexual interactions? Regardless, don’t skip the condom.
- Teen births: Colorado’s had enormous success reducing its teen pregnancy rate by offering free IUDs and implants to low-income women, and it continues to decrease every year. But our rate was so high to begin with that we’ve still got a long way to go.
- High school graduation: The percentage of Denver County teens earning their diplomas in four years sits at a measly 61 percent (although the Colorado Department of Education shows a slightly higher rate). Looking beyond the county rankings, I discovered that the average high school graduation rate nationwide is 82 percent. That’s an enormous gap, and it’s been concerning for a long time.
- Children in poverty: At 23 percent, the county’s proportion of impoverished kids pales in comparison to that of Colorado’s more rural counties, such as Saguache (49 percent) and Costilla (43 percent), both in southern Colorado. But alongside other developed cities and even the state average of 15 percent, the Mile High City’s in bad shape. (That also could be affecting our high school graduation rate.)
- Violent crime: Having lived outside of Detroit and in Washington, D.C. before moving to Denver, I was a little surprised at this one. Denver is, in fact, safer than both of those cities but compared to the rest of Colorado and other urban areas of similar size, it’s still coming out ahead (or rather, behind).
While this information is interesting, the key is coming up with solutions to solve the problems it reveals. For example, Colorado created the Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-Engagement back in 2009 and has launched multiple initiatives to try to increase graduation rates. And it has worked: Back in 2010, when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation first teamed up with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute to release the County Health Rankings, Denver’s high school graduation rate was just 50 percent. But, as the most recent data shows, we still have work to do.