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Seattle and Tacoma are neighbors, but one area is much healthier than the other

King County and Pierce County might be close geographically, but when it comes to health there is a significant gulf between the two communities.

That’s the finding of a study published last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The 50-state study ranked every county by two metrics: health outcomes and health factors.

Health outcomes measure premature deaths, percentage of people in poor or fair health, the number of poor physical and mental health days taken and babies with low birth weight.

Health factors measure health behaviors, clinical care, the physical environment and other social and economic conditions.

The study ranked King County as second healthiest county in the Evergreen State, just behind San Juan County. Pierce County came in at No. 20 out of 39 counties.

Just a few dozen miles separate Seattle and Tacoma, so what is so different between their respective counties?

To begin with, the report measures premature deaths statewide, using a metric of years of potential life lost before age 75. King County reported 4,500 years of potential life lost, while in Pierce County it was 6,500 years.

King County residents also reported being in slightly better health than did their neighbors to the south. An estimated 11 percent of King County residents were in poor or fair health, while 13 percent of Pierce County residents reported the same.

Pierce County residents were more likely to smoke as their neighbors to the north, 15 percent to 9 percent. There is also a higher percentage of adult obesity — 31 percent in Pierce County and 22 percent in King County.

There were approximately 588 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 in Pierce County, and 445 per 100,000 in King County.

King County also had half as many teen births as Pierce County — 11 births per 1,000 girls in King County and 22 births per 1,000 in Pierce County.

Access to health care also divides the two counties.

There is one doctor for every 850 residents of King County; in Pierce County, it’s 1,470 residents for every one doctor.

Finally, King County reported a lower unemployment rate at 3.7 percent than did Pierce County 5.4 percent.

While the study found positive trends in many counties across the country, that good news wasn’t universal.

“The data show that, in counties everywhere, not everyone has benefited in the same way from these health improvements,” the study found. “There are fewer opportunities and resources for better health among groups that have been historically marginalized, including people of color, people living in poverty, people with physical or mental disabilities, LGBTQ persons, and women.”

The study authors wrote that many of the differences in opportunity were “the result of policies and practices at many levels that have created deep-rooted barriers to good health, such as unfair bank lending practices, school funding based on local property taxes, and discriminatory policing and prison sentencing.”

“The collective effect is that a fair and just opportunity to live a long and healthy life does not exist for everyone. Now is the time to change how things are done,” the report concluded.

The full study can be found at http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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