A light came on for Kevin Donohue at a seminar last year sponsored by the Kentucky Student Rural Health Association.
Donohue, who plans to go to medical school, following in the footsteps of his father, who practices in Pikeville, wasn't aware how acutely poverty and health are tied.
"There was a lot of powerful data shown in terms of socio-economic status and health outcomes. You can look at high school graduate rates and correlate for things like increased breast cancer mortality and cervical cancer," said Donohue, a University of Kentucky senior who will be a co-moderator of the association's Rural Health Forum on Friday.
Hoping to help improve those statistics, Donohue got more involved in the association, which includes members from Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State University, and Pikeville College School of Osteopathic Medicine.
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The non-profit group uses twice-yearly forums to encourage students in medical fields to work in rural Kentucky.
"One of the big problems in rural health is a shortage of physicians and medical professionals," he said. "The main idea is to spread awareness. We figure if people are aware of the issues, they are more likely to be advocates."
The group communicates with students in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and dental assistance through a Web site, Twitter and Facebook. The seminar, however, is open to the public.
This year's forum highlights programs that seem to make a difference in the problems in Eastern and southern Kentucky, including drug addiction, obesity and diabetes, he said.
"A lot of times when we get caught up talking about rural health disparities, we get caught up with problems," he said. "But we are having some success and making a difference."
Often, it is by trying new approaches, he said. For example, the Appalachia Cancer Network recently received a $6.5 million grant to help research the effectiveness of church-based exercise groups as a way to reduce obesity.
Dr. Gil Friedell, director emeritus of the Markey Cancer Center, will highlight his work as co-founder of Kentucky Homeplace, which trains lay health workers to help their neighbors learn how to obtain services, including finding the right doctor and getting glasses.
"My particular approach is to stress the idea that if the problem is in the community, the truth is in the community," he said. "You can't change rural health by a top-down approach."
"It's important for students in public health and elsewhere to know that it's not just a doctor problem," he said. "Health in rural areas is a societal problem."
The challenges facing rural Kentucky are many, Friedell said, but Kentucky also has some strengths, including a local health department to serve every county.
"We ought to have an overarching view of what we want to do," said Friedell, who has created the Friedell Committee for Health System Transformation.
Other speakers include Sarah Flynn, director of research and outreach for Operation UNITE; Dr. Mark Dignan, lead investigator for the Appalachia Cancer Network; and Dr. William Betz, senior associate dean for osteopathic education at Pikeville College School of Osteopathic Medicine.