Butterfly effect: Insight into how Kentucky’s children are doing when it comes to health.

By Terry Brooks


A few years back, I came across an article in the MIT Technology Review about the power of the “butterfly effect.” It outlined the ground-breaking research of Edward Lorenz on chaos. As a pioneer in climate research, Lorenz documented that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in South America affected air currents in ways that turned a weather pattern on its head in Central Park. This scientific confirmation proved that the universe is connected in ways far more powerful than imagined.

Dr. Lorenz’s groundbreaking research can offer needed counsel when we try to answer the question of, “How are Kentucky’s children doing when it comes to health?”

Every year, we at Kentucky Youth Advocates attempt to answer that question using the best available data we can get our hands on. Through our KIDS COUNT project, we create an index of child well-being based on 16 key indicators, that offer a comparative snapshot for all 120 counties in Kentucky. (Find the profile for your home county on our website at kyyouth.org.)

Our KIDS COUNT index includes health-related measures, such as babies born at low birthweight, children with health insurance, smoking during pregnancy and teen births. And yet “the butterfly effect” suggests that we have go to beyond those traditional measures and also look holistically at the other factors that impact opportunities for children to be healthy – educational outcomes, financial stability, and family and community measures – because they are intertwined. The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, a major funder of health initiatives, has led the charge to document the impacts and identify solutions to what we now call the social determinants of health.

More Than Healthcare

We certainly have to continue to pay heed to traditional efforts to improve children’s health through the lens of whether children and their families have access to healthcare for preventive measures like screenings and immunizations, or to treat illness or disease. However, the reality is that children’s health is touched deeply and pervasively by the butterfly effect of where they live, learn and play – long before they get to the doctor’s office or dentist’s chair.

If we really want to improve children’s health, we need to start with their families, their neighborhoods and their schools. Where does good health begin?

  • Health begins in strong, loving families. It begins in neighborhoods that guarantee safety and foster healthy practices. It begins with accessible grocery stores that have fresh fruits and vegetables and public places with clean, smoke-free air.
  • Health is safe and nurturing early care settings for infants and toddlers.
  • Health is a good education, where every child learns not only how to read and write but how to prepare for a fulfilling, civil, healthy and prosperous life.
  • Health is having the family financial resources needed to make ends meet.

As we work on fixing healthcare in Kentucky, we need to start where health begins, not just where it ends.

A Bigger Role

Health professionals play a vital role in not only treating illness, but in fostering health. For instance, what if health providers used their role as first contact with young children and families to link them to community resources and help build strong, safe, stable, loving home environments?

This means asking questions of their patients to assess whether their children have access to stable and safe care and if both parents are working. This means reminding them to read to their children daily. It means talking about the tough job of parenting and how to handle those stressful times when that little one just won’t go down for a nap. It may mean finding ways to ensure that stable housing is a reality and that the family, indeed, has the capacity to live in financial stability. It means that even the busiest health professional has to spend time building relationships with community partners who can offer those resources.

Health professionals can also play a major role by speaking out as advocates for state and federal policy changes to increase opportunities for Kentuckians to improve their health and well-being. They can use their influence and firsthand knowledge of the importance of the social determinants of health to push for evidence-based policies on the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children, a statewide policy agenda for children (visit blueprintky.org to see the 2017 agenda and ways you can get involved).

Powerful Connections

No institution alone can restore a healthy Kentucky that nurtures families and communities. That kind of change requires leadership, and a partnership of business, government and civic and religious institutions and health professionals.

The original Lorenz research was filled with permutations and formulas and exquisite formulas. And yet at its core, the message was simple – the most powerful connections are as unexpected as they are animated by common sense. And maybe, just maybe, the pathway to improving the fundamental health of Kentucky kids is filled with unexpected wisdom and common sense that emanate from thinking about how the very places where kids live, learn and play connect in the simplest and yet complex manner with the health of our children.

-Terry Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

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Ben Keeton

Publisher at Medical News
Ben is the publisher of Medical News and focuses on the business of healthcare in Kentucky.
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