PIKEVILLE, Ky. – A new report issued by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) highlighting health disparities in Appalachia only reinforces the critical need for community and economic development in Appalachia Kentucky, says Jared Arnett, executive director of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR).
The report was released by the ARC, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. It documents the disparities of health outcomes and other factors in the Appalachian region when compared to the nation.
The Appalachia region encompasses 15 states (420 counties) from northern Mississippi to New York’s southern tier (approximately 25 million people.
The study reviewed 41 population and public health indicators. Some of the key findings, according to the ARC include:
• Appalachia has higher mortality rates than the nation in seven of America’s leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), injury, stroke, diabetes, and suicide. These rates are dramatically higher in Appalachia’s rural areas and in counties experiencing economic distress.
• Mortality due to poisoning – which includes drug overdoses – is markedly higher in the Region than in the nation as a whole, especially in the Region’s rural and economically distressed areas.
• The Appalachian Region has lower supplies of health care professionals per 100,000 population when compared to the nation as a whole. These include primary care physicians, mental health providers, specialty physicians, and dentists. The supply of specialty physicians per 100,000 population is 65 percent lower in Central Appalachia than in the nation as a whole.
• Obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity — risk factors for a number of health issues — are all more prevalent in Appalachia than in the nation overall. Nearly 25 percent of adults in Appalachia’s economically distressed counties are smokers, as compared with just over 16.3 percent of adults in the nation as a whole.
• In several measures, including the incidence of chlamydia, the prevalence of HIV, student-teacher ratio, diabetes monitoring among Medicare patients, and the social association rate, Appalachia is doing better than the nation as a whole.
“When you examine many of the key findings of the report, it really boils down to a lack of economic opportunity and diversity across our region,” said Arnett. He participated in an ARC roundtable discussion entitled “Diseases of Despair” on Tuesday, August 29 in Johnson City, Tennessee. “If you present people with an opportunity for gainful employment with a livable wage, you create a sense of purpose. That purpose, in turn, creates healthy habits, healthy relationships, and healthy communities. The health challenges we face can be fixed, in part, by creating opportunities for our citizens to find good jobs and contribute to their respective communities.”
SOAR, which has a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is working on the frontlines of many of the issues highlighted in the report. Two CDC employees are assigned to SOAR and charged to work on public health issues specifically.
Addressing health-related issues is a part of SOAR’s comprehensive Regional Blueprint for a 21st Century Appalachia released earlier this year. One of the goals outlined in the Regional Blueprint is “reducing the physical and economic impact of obesity, diabetes and substance abuse.” The plan was generated from the input of over 3,000 citizens across SOAR’s 54-county service area.
Earlier this year, SOAR partnered with Addiction Recovery Care, the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP) and Sullivan University to create a Peer Support Academy for those undergoing treatment for alcohol and substance abuse. The consortium aims to address the barriers those in treatment have in re-entering the workforce after treatment. Addiction Recovery Care operates four in-patient and four out-patient treatment facilities across the SOAR region.
“It is important that we tackle the issue of alcohol and substance abuse with a holistic approach that not only provides recovery but a pathway to re-entry into the workforce,” said Arnett. “By doing this, we are providing people with a sense of meaning and purpose, and that will lessen the likelihood that they will relapse.”
The goals within SOAR’s Regional Blueprint are combating the issues of not only health disparities but also community and economic development challenges. Arnett said SOAR is “building a movement that promotes entrepreneurship, ingenuity, collaboration, and innovation that must be at the core of the transformation we so desire in Appalachia Kentucky.”
The Regional Blueprint goals are:
• Increase the availability of affordable, high-speed broadband, through fiber, to businesses and residents; and increase adoption rates throughout the SOAR region;
• Develop our regional workforce to be competitive in the digital economy and other emerging industries;
• To create more and expand existing small businesses within the region by taking full advantage of the digital economy;
• To reduce the physical and economic impact of obesity, diabetes, and substance abuse;
• Increase the amount of industrial employment which includes manufacturing, natural resources, processing, and distribution by expanding existing companies and attracting new ones;
• Create a local foods movement by connecting local producers to markets for their products both within and outside the region; and
• Establish Kentucky’s Appalachian region as a tourism destination.
“Our blueprint is not another document sitting on a shelf and collecting dust, it is a living document that serves as a plan for the transformation of Appalachia Kentucky,” added Arnett. “It was produced by our citizens, and it adequately displays their passion and desire for a brighter tomorrow.”
Arnett calls the issues facing Appalachia Kentucky “some of the most challenging in the developed world.”
His challenge to those in Appalachia Kentucky: “Will we fear everything and run or face everything and rise? The choice is ours.”
For more information on the ARC report, visit https://www.arc.gov/assets/research_reports/Health_Disparities_in_Appalachia_August_2017.pdf. To read SOAR’s Regional Blueprint, visit www.soar-ky.org/blueprint.