VCU Center on Human Needs Launches County Health Calculator

Online app shows impact of education and income on health

The Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Human Needs, together with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, today unveiled the County Health Calculator, a new online simulation tool that shows how many lives would be saved if a county, state or the nation had the health benefits that exist in areas with higher levels of college education or income.

The County Health Calculator was developed by researchers at the VCU Center on Human Needs and a data team at the VCU School of Medicine Department of Biostatistics led by Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D. The interactive tool allows users to move a slider bar to examine how mortality would be affected if more favorable socioeconomic conditions existed for the United States, or a specific state or county.

“The goal of this effort is to help the public and policy makers get a better appreciation of how deeply health is linked to the conditions in which we live. There’s a tendency to assume that health is determined by health care, but this project focuses attention on the powerful influence of socioeconomic conditions,” said Steven H. Woolf, M.D., M.P.H., director of the VCU Center on Human Needs and professor in the Department of Family Medicine.

According to Woolf, factors such as education and income – which are the two variables highlighted in this project – along with neighborhood conditions and the community environment exert significant influences on health outcomes, possibly more so than healthcare.

“We developed the Calculator to drive that message home. It illustrates that people live longer lives in places where there is more education or higher incomes,” he said.

The project is an extension of a tool Woolf and Johnson developed in 2008, called the Education and Health Calculator, which looked at the effects of education on avertable deaths if states or counties had higher education rates. The upgraded tool, released today, looks at both education and income. Johnson’s team developed a regression equation based on data from more than 3,000 counties, which generates the projections shown by the Calculator.

Woolf added that the focus on income is not restricted to poverty. “The tool measures the percentage of Americans with incomes that are more than 200 percent of the poverty level – the middle class and the wealthy. The message applies to rich or poor: income, education, and the opportunities they bring, are not just important for jobs and livelihoods – they are important for health,” he said.

Earlier today, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the 2011 County Health Rankings, a sister project by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The rankings provide a snapshot of community health for more than 3,000 counties in the United States. Fairfax County ranked number one in the state. According to the Calculator, if Richmond had the income level of Fairfax County, 17 percent of deaths would be averted. Read about the County Health Rankings here.

Both projects were supported by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Woolf collaborated with Amber Haley, project epidemiologist at the VCU Center on Human Needs, and a team at the VCU Department of Biostatistics including associate professor Robert E. Johnson, Ph.D., Chunfeng Ren, M.P.H., and Brian Bush, Ph.D., database manager. Forum One, a web developer in Alexandria, Burness Communications in Bethesda, Md., and researchers at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute in Madison, Wis. also collaborated on this work.

Image courtesy of Burness Communications.
Image courtesy of Burness Communications.