Editorials

Act on proven solutions to Kentucky’s health problems; it’s not rocket science

A study published in June and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that where you live in Kentucky might cut eight years off your life.
A study published in June and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that where you live in Kentucky might cut eight years off your life.

News of the first-ever MIT Appalachian Health Hack-a-thon, which will be held Oct. 6-8 in Somerset, sent us hunting for a relevant definition of “hack” and we came up with “an appropriate application of ingenuity.”

Congratulations to Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the organization that’s trying to apply ingenuity to Eastern Kentucky’s economic woes, for organizing the hack-a-thon, which is free and will be taking applications to participate through Monday. A kick-off reception is open to non-participants who register.

Just exposing Kentuckians to the process will yield benefits. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Hacking Medicine, which has led almost 50 such confabs, but never one in Appalachia, will facilitate the gathering, focusing on substance abuse and obesity/diabetes.

The aim is to stimulate innovative solutions and business plans by cross-pollinating ideas and expertise in intensive brainstorming sessions involving everyone from clinicians to techies to patients.

Kentucky suffers the nation’s highest cancer rates, third highest fatal overdose rate, some of the worst overall health outcomes and shortest lifespans and needs all the innovative solutions it can get.

We hope the hack-a-thon produces a scalable new technology or protocol that saves lives. But we’d be remiss if we did not also plug some obvious, well-known solutions that are already proven to save lives, but that too many of the region’s leaders shun.

Most obvious is tackling extraordinarily high smoking rates. Smoke-free laws, higher cigarette taxes and aggressive public education campaigns have reduced rates of tobacco-related disease in other places. But too many of our state’s politicians — from SOAR founder U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers in Washington to Gov. Matt Bevin and legislators in Frankfort to city councils and county fiscal courts — protect the tobacco industry not their constituents’ health.

Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has brought top federal health officials to the 5th District. In addition to Rogers, the hack-a-thon’s kickoff speakers are Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and Dr. Douglas R. Lowy, acting director of the National Cancer Institute.

The high-level attention is great but avails little when state and local officials refuse to take the most basic steps to improve the region’s health outcomes.

Along those lines, Kentucky’s political, public health and medical establishments continue to show a stunning lack of curiosity about the role of environmental toxins in Eastern Kentucky’s health problems.

In 2014, a SOAR committee identified possible links between surface coal mining and health problems as one of its top concerns and recommended further study, but there has been no follow-up in Kentucky. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to review the research on mining’s health effects which will be ready in two years.

Poverty, widespread in Eastern Kentucky, is a predictor of disease, and some of Kentucky’s poorest people still lack safe drinking water. We don’t need MIT to tell us that clean water is critical to human health.

Health and prosperity are inextricably linked. SOAR is fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in places long tied to a single industry. But good ideas require leadership. Raising hopes only to dash them through inaction reenforces hopelessness, and hopelessness is dangerous to ingenuity’s health.

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