Programs to expand mental, oral health services for eastern Kentucky residents

By Tiffany Murray

Kentucky has historically ranked in the lowest 10 percent of the United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings. The Foundation has tracked the many barriers to good health confronting Kentuckians, along with residents of other states, for nearly 30 years.

From the Foundation’s perspective, perhaps the brightest ray of light comes from the many Kentucky organizations striving to create a healthier Kentucky. United Health Foundation has joined forces with many of them – providing grants and support for initiatives that address some of Kentucky’s most pressing health needs.

Pathways Partnership

In November 2018, the United Health Foundation provided a $930,000, three-year grant to Pathways, Inc., to improve access to mental healthcare for children and adolescents and address serious mental health challenges, including a 25 percent increase in the commonwealth’s teen suicides since 2016, as reported through America’s Health Rankings, as well as the emotional repercussions from Kentucky’s high rate of drug deaths. Pathways will expand mental health services for children in eastern Kentucky using telehealth technology.

The project enables Pathways to provide better access to specialty mental healthcare for the more than 3,000 children it serves across a 10-county service area.

Pathways has installed the telehealth technology at its outpatient offices and specialty residential units in the region and has begun connecting patients to child and adolescent psychiatrists, eliminating the need for families to drive two hours to access a child mental health specialist.

“From our own America’s Health Rankings, we’re aware of these challenge to mental health,” said Tracy Malone, president of the United Health Foundation. “We were eager to support such a forward-thinking and potentially life-changing solution to improve health for children and families.”

Oral Health Focus

United Health Foundation also joined in efforts to reduce oral cancer rates and improve oral health in Kentucky. The Foundation provided a $1 million grant to the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (UKCD) to launch its “Eradicate Oral Cancer in Eastern Kentucky” project.

The three-year project addresses the high prevalence of oral cancer in eastern Kentucky, as well as the lack of access to local healthcare providers specializing in oral cancer treatment. The project raises awareness of oral cancer symptoms and its links to heavy alcohol and tobacco use and is on-track to provide over 1,000 oral cancer screenings in partnership with local health departments. The project also helps connect patients who need additional care to cancer specialists in Lexington.

America’s Health Rankings indicates Kentucky has a growing problem with access to dental care and oral health services, as the number of dentists per capita has declined for three straight years.

Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest incidences of oral cancer. And, oral cancer has a high mortality rate – with only about 57 percent of those diagnosed surviving five years beyond the diagnosis, due in large part to late discovery. The prevalence of oral cancer in the counties targeted by the United Health Foundation grant is as much as 54 percent higher than the state average.

“There are some outstanding organizations striving to do great things to help improve the health of Kentuckians,” said Tom Wiffler, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Specialty Benefits. “University of Kentucky College of Dentistry and Pathways are two examples. We’re grateful for the opportunity to help them make a difference.”

A Model For Others

The UK College of Dentistry’s efforts to eradicate oral cancer in eastern Kentucky reflects its overall mission – advancing oral and general health in Kentucky and beyond. And, indeed, this project may become a model for other organizations.

The college will share its project findings and results with state and national organizations and will provide guidance on how the program might be replicated or adapted in other communities.

The barriers and solutions to improve mental and oral health in eastern Kentucky are complex. But with the expertise and integrated approach set forth by Pathways Inc. and the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, along with the commitment and support provided by United Health Foundation, the ambitious goals of the projects are achievable.

-Tiffany Murray is with Guthrie/Mayes Public Relations.