Johnson County improves general public health ranking across state

Data from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute ranked Johnson County sixth out of Iowa’s 99 counties in terms of public health — a large jump from the ranking of 25 in 2020.


Rohan Abernathy-Wee

Workout equipment is seen in Hillcrest Residence Hall on March 9, 2023.

Sofia Mamakos, News Reporter

The general health of Johnson County’s residents has improved, and the county is ranked one of the healthiest in the state, according to a report.

The County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute ranked Johnson County sixth out of 99 Iowa counties for general public health for 2022. Johnson County ranked significantly higher in the program than other Iowa counties with similar populations, including Polk County, Linn County, and Scott County.

The program measures the health of every county in all 50 states.

The model of general population health used by the program emphasizes the many social, economic, physical, clinical, and other factors that influence the length and quality of life in a county.

The number is an increase from 2021, when the county ranked seventh. In 2020, the county ranked 25th. The program started collecting public health data for Iowa in 2011.

Sam Jarvis, Johnson County Public Health community health division manager, said he is not surprised by this high ranking given the county’s active health care community.

“Johnson County, typically being a little bit larger, having the tax base, and the forward-thinking agencies and organizations that really put in the resources, time, and effort to maintain these amenities ends up making a difference,” Jarvis said.

While the ranking is positive for the county, Anjali Deshpande, clinical associate professor in the University of Iowa department of epidemiology, said these rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt.

“It measures where a county is relative to the other counties in the state, and just because a county improves in the rankings, doesn’t only mean that that county improved, but it can also mean that other counties went down,” she said.

Deshpande said a potential cause of the large increase of general health from 2020 could be that Iowa City was better equipped than other counties to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Being in a bigger county that has more resources, that has medical facilities, and that has overall a slightly younger population than other counties could explain why we continued to do well or even better than we had in the past,” she said.

RELATED: Johnson County Public Health shifts COVID-19 mitigation perspective

Moving forward, Deshpande said Johnson County should continue to monitor the health of disparate populations and build coalitions to bring together people and organizations.

“Not only focusing on health and health care access, but really focusing on making Johnson County a place where people can live safely and have all the things that they need related to health, not just health care,” she said.

The UI Campus Recreation and Wellness Center has also seen an increase in memberships since 2020, indicating people could be taking a deeper interest in their health.

Mallory Valentine, UI Campus Recreation and Wellness Center associate director of strategic initiatives, wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that from July 2020 to June 2021, the recreation center recorded 8,499 active members and 11,564 active members from July 2021 to June 2022.

Valentine wrote she thinks there are two potential reasons that CRWC saw this increase in memberships.

“First, I believe our patrons are more comfortable exercising in public now than previously,” Valentine wrote. “Second, in general there has been an increased focus on health and well-being since the pandemic started, hence promoting participation in fitness-related activities.”

To prolong these positive trends, Jarvis said Johnson County Public Health plans to rely on partnerships in the department and the community, including recruiting and retaining staff who want to work in health care and have experience and knowledge.

“The other side of that is also making sure that we’re going beyond just our four walls here at the department and that we’re out in the community, talking to folks and working with other community partners,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis said while it is great to see Johnson County ranked as one of the healthier counties in the state, health disparities still exist in the county.

“There are certainly pockets where there are inequities,” Jarvis said. “For us to continue to be one of the healthiest counties, we’ve got to address those and not rest on our laurels and not say, ‘Hey, we’re one of the healthiest counties. Great, let’s move on.’”

Jarvis said he believes the role of the Johnson County Public Health Department is to continue to look at places in the county that don’t have the same level of accessibility.

“It’s really about maintaining and then expanding that access to address those inequities,” he said. “Our role is to continue to look at those things and find ways that we can work with other agencies and state partners to improve those outcomes for everyone and make sure that everyone has the chance to have a healthier and safer life.”