Appalachian Health and Well-Being Forum Focuses on Southeastern Kentucky

As Southeastern Kentucky works to address well-documented and long-standing regional disparities in health and well-being, scientists from the University of Kentucky and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) came together with community leaders and research partners recently for the Appalachian Health and Well-Being Forum, which highlighted innovative health promotion and disease prevention programs and activities in the region.

Held at the Letcher County UK Cooperative Extension Office, the forum provided an opportunity for residents and investigators interested in health and well-being to share success stories and lessons learned from past and ongoing projects. A variety of exhibitors from both the community and UK were also on hand to distribute materials and information about health-related programs and activities.

The conference included a panel discussion featuring Linda Birnbaum, director of the NIEHS, part of the National Institutes of Health; Dawn Brewer, assistant professor in the UK Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment; L.M. "Mike" Caudill, chief executive officer of Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation (MCHC) in Whitesburg; and Frances Feltner, director of the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health (CERH) in Hazard. The discussion was moderated by Ernie Scott, director of the Kentucky Office of Rural Health. After a welcome by Whitesburg Mayor James W. Craft, the panelists focused their discussion on the role of community in preventing disease and promoting health and well-being.

Describing a number of NIEHS-funded research activities, Birnbaum emphasized the importance of community-based problem-solving for understanding and addressing challenging health issues, including reducing exposures to toxicants prenatally and across the lifespan.

Brewer described nutrition research under way by UK and its community partners that hopes to “make the healthy choice, the easy, or default, choice.”

Caudill talked about the importance of place and how it is central to the efforts of MCHC to promote health within the region.

Discussing the work of UK's CERH, Feltner highlighted the need for workforce development programs and how economic depression can affect the health of a community.

Prior to the forum, the NIEHS director participated in site visits to the UK CERH, MCHC, Appalshop and the Cowan Community Center. During the visits, local leaders were able to share valuable information with Birnbaum on the issues impacting natural resources in the community.

“Our mission for NIEHS is to discover how the environment affects people in order to promote healthier lives,” Birnbaum said.

“Too often, individuals and organizations work in overlapping areas to promote community health and positive lifestyles but are not fully aware of each other’s work,” according to Lindell Ormsbee, Raymond-Blythe Professor of Civil Engineering in the College of Engineering and associate director of the UK Superfund Research Center (SRC). “This forum provided an opportunity to help make those connections.”

Kelly Pennell, associate professor in the College of Engineering and co-leader of the SRC Research Translation and Community Engagement Cores, who joined Ormsbee in leading a planning team comprising community members from Perry and Letcher counties, as well as UK faculty and students, added, “We were honored to be welcomed so warmly into these communities and be given the opportunity to learn about and share with other organizations the many programs taking place to improve health and well-being in Eastern Kentucky.”

Organizers of the forum, which was sponsored by UK and NIEHS, hope the event will further enhance the numerous ongoing efforts taking place in the southeastern part of the state.

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MEDIA CONTACTS: Carl Nathe, 859-257-3200; carl.nathe@.uky.edu; Kara Richardson, 859-327-2825; kara.richardson@uky.edu