Study raises concern over Kentuckians with chronic conditions, COVID

Published 2:11 pm Wednesday, December 30, 2020

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By Ben Chandler
President/CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

A new state-by-state comparison of the nation’s health ranks Kentucky near the bottom in a variety of significant categories.

Though the 2020 America’s Health Rankings® Annual Report from United Health Foundation may underscore Kentucky’s longstanding position as a state with serious health challenges, this year’s rankings also provide a great service by raising a caution flag related to Kentucky’s battle against COVID-19.

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First, consider that Kentucky is ranked 49th among all states for percentage of residents (15 percent) who suffer from three or more of these chronic conditions: arthritis, asthma, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and diabetes.

Though the study was performed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, its findings spark concern related to the current crisis. Notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that adults with any of these chronic conditions are at increased risk of severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Also, the United Health Foundation study shows 36.5 percent of Kentucky adults are obese (compared to 31.9 percent nationally). And the CDC reports that adults who are obese also face increased risks related to the virus.

Of course, more broadly, the rankings are a reminder that chronic health conditions and generally poor health make us more susceptible to a wide range of risks … and not just during this current global pandemic. So these rankings are also a call to action – a rallying cry to each of us as individuals and community leaders to continue addressing Kentucky’s chronic health conditions and other health needs despite the pandemic. As COVID-19 cases have climbed in Kentucky, one major concern is that Kentuckians still may be skipping preventive and non-COVID-related visits to the doctor to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus. But the decision to delay such visits – which may include screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies, as well as annual wellness exams – could have serious health consequences, especially for those with chronic conditions that require regular, ongoing medical attention.

We don’t have to skip these important visits. In recent months, health providers and clinics have taken a variety of steps to reduce the risks of contracting COVID-19. In addition to mask requirements, doctors’ offices are implementing strict social distancing policies, limiting the number of people in waiting rooms, and instructing patients to wait in their cars until their appointments begin. And many providers are offering telehealth options, where patients can meet their providers without leaving their homes.

So, while Kentuckians must remain vigilant in their efforts to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus, we cannot neglect our broader health care needs.

For the record, America’s Health Rankings also include some positive observations about Kentucky. They note that the commonwealth’s air pollution has decreased by 12.6 percent from 2009 to 2019. We are ranked third in the percentage of adults who are high school graduates (90.3 percent), which is important because education attainment generally equates with more secure employment, higher earnings, and better health. Our poverty rate also has been declining, from 19.4 percent in 2012 to 16.3 percent in 2019. These represent movement in the right direction. And though Kentucky has dropped slightly in recent years, we are ranked 14th in percentage of residents (93.6 percent) covered by private or public health insurance.

In this COVID-19 era, managing our health is a multi-pronged approach. We need to keep ourselves safe and prevent the virus from spreading, yet also ensure we aren’t adding to its toll through delayed care or missed diagnoses. And then there is the even bigger picture: Challenging ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities to improve our state’s health through policies that increase access to health care, reduce exposure to health risks and improve health equity. As we close out a year full of turmoil and uncertainties, there has never been a better time to pursue a healthier Kentucky.