A study by Harris County Public Health found while Harris County’s average life expectancy in 78.7 years, which is on par with state and national averages, life expectancy in Harris County alone varies by nearly 24 years depending on where a resident lives.

HCPH released “Harris Cares: A 2020 Vision of Health in Harris County” to the public and presented its findings to the Harris County Commissioners Court on Nov. 12. The 10-month-long study was approved by Harris County Commissioners Court in January and is a result of HCPH’s request to review public health and prevention and to make recommendations on improving Harris County health. In April, the court requested HCPH add health care delivery to the assessment.

To view the full report, click here.

The benchmark report is the first of its kind, according to county officials, as it not only gauges the overall health of residents in the third-most populous county in the U.S., but also looks at the relationship between public health, prevention, health care delivery and access to care. The report also provides recommendations for county officials to improve public health going forward.

“The goal of the study from our standpoint is to really look at health holistically and really think about ways that we can take these suggested recommendations, really consider them, and then implement them for the health and well-being of our community,” HCPH Executive Director Dr. Umair Shah said during the meeting.

One of the major themes found in the report was a nearly 24-year range in average lifespan that varied across the county from as low as 65 years to as high as 89 years. According to the report, the Memorial/Bear Creek area has the highest average lifespan, while the East Little York/Settegast area has the lowest.

“I take it personally because my precinct doesn’t live as long as [Precinct 4], and we’re talking about real lives; we’re talking about unborn children; we’re talking about those who are working hard and don’t have access to proper health care,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said during the meeting.

Additionally, 1 in 3 residents ages 12-17 is overweight or obese, while some communities in Harris County have more than 50% of adults who are classified as obese, according to key findings included in a Nov. 12 press release about the study.

“Houston/Harris County—we’re one of the top three cities in the nation that leads the obesity rates in the United States,” said Dr. Dana Beckham, who is the director of the HCPH’s Office of Science, Surveillance and Technology and lead the study.

Other key takeaways were that approximately 1 in 5 Harris County adults lacks health insurance, with some communities having 1 in 3 adults lacking health insurance. While Memorial Park/University Place had the lowest uninsured population, Gulfton/North Sharpstown had the highest.

Additionally, the study concluded Harris County’s population has been growing faster than its health care infrastructure, making health care access more difficult.

Marlen Trujillo, the CEO of the Spring Branch Community Center, said her organization is the only federally qualified health center in west Houston with six clinics in Precincts 3 and 4 providing primary care, oral health care and mental health care to more than 20,000 patients who are mostly uninsured.

“Even with six locations—three of which are in Spring Branch—we could probably add another two in Spring Branch, and we would still not meet the demands of the community,” Trujillo said during the meeting. “The need for primary care services just does not end in our communities.”

At the conclusion of the 291-page report, HCPH suggests the following recommendations to be implemented over the next decade to improve Harris County health going forward:

  • Drive system-level change through prevention and upstream-focused solutions that incorporate health and social services in a more integrated and effective manner.

  • Strengthen integration of health services and systems by coordinating delivery of existing health care services and developing new health care infrastructure where needed to improve access to health care across the community.

  • Enhance the safety net system to address better the ongoing needs of Harris County residents, who are underinsured or uninsured, including through the creation of a new, robust delivery model called “Harris Care.”

  • Align strategies across existing county and municipal governmental departments that affpact health to improve communication, coordination and collaboration.

  • Streamline and integrate health care and prevention services across Harris County and the city of Houston.

Les Becker, HCPH's deputy director and director of the Operations and Finance Division, said next steps for the study will include looking further into health-related issues the team was unable to do within the allotted 10-month period. The team will also be working to move the data from a report to a website where residents can more easily access the information, which will be updated on a regular basis.

“I think what this really reminds us [of] is the importance of health and health care,” Shah said. “We can’t treat our way out of this. We have to really be investing in the prevention piece of this.”