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Experts: Poverty to blame for Philadelphia's 'unhealthiest' ranking

Low incomes, lacking education and unemployment are the strongest predictors of health — and most highly concentrated in large urban cities.

Though Philadelphia has long been known for its vices from obesity to crime, a recent study deeming it the unhealthiest county in the entire state paints an even bleaker portrait of the city.

The health rankings released yesterday by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation puts Philadelphia at 67 out of 67 counties in Pennsylvania, ranking the worst in nearly every area from violent crime to sexually transmitted diseases.

"A big part of the study is to show people where you live matters to your health," said University of Wisconsin Outreach Specialist Kate Konkle. "We often tend to see larger cities ranked lower because there’s a larger concentration of people living in poverty and we know lower incomes and lower levels of education are really strong predictors of poor health."

Philadelphia's high school graduation rate is 51 percent compared to 79 percent in the rest of the state and 36 percent of the city’s children live in poverty as opposed to 19 percent in Pennsylvania overall.

Konkle said that the study weighs social and economic factors most heavily to reflect the impact a person's quality of life has on their physical health.

For instance, though Philadelphia's ratio of primary care physicians to patients was respectable – 742 doctors per person versus a 631 national benchmark – other factors dragged the city's ratings down.

"Health care is one small part of people’s health and I think that’s another strong message we want to get across, that just having doctors in your community doesn’t make you a healthy person," Konkle said. "We want people to be healthy and not rely on health care to fix problems once they come up."

Konkle said that having access to nutritious foods, safe places to play outside and well-paying jobs are important contributors to lower stress levels, which in turn lead to better health outcomes.

By the numbers


>> 21 percent of Philadelphians are in poor or fair health compared to a 10 percent national benchmark.

>> 55 percent of Philadelphia restaurants are fast food vendors compared to a 25 percent national benchmark.

>> There are 1,251 sexually transmitted diseases per 100,000 Philadelphians compared to a national benchmark of 84.

>> There are 1,382 violent crimes per 100,000 Philadelphia residents compared to a national benchmark of 73.

>> There are 11,791 premature deaths per 100,000 Philadelphians compared to a national benchmark of 5,466.



More people, more problems


Several surrounding suburbs fared much better than Philadelphia in the rankings. Chester County weighed in as the third healthiest county and Montgomery and Bucks counties were rated fifth and sixth, respectively.

But Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunity Donald Schwartz said the statewide comparison is unfair. "This the third year in the row they’ve done the report and we’ve been the lowest. We're the poorest county in Pennsylvania. The strongest predictor for health is poverty, followed by education and unemployment, so it's not surprising," he said.

"One thing that's a little frustrating is we're not compared to other large urban counties and there is no way, based on how the report is done, to compare large urban counties. It isn’t surprising that large urban counties in general have poor health."

"The thing that's surprising is that given we’ve had lowest rank of any county in Pennsylvania for three years, the governor is cutting four percent of our public health budget and 20 percent of the mental health and drug abuse budget," Schwartz added. "It certainly seems like a poor decision."