UK HealthCare

Op-Ed: We can and will do better for Kentucky’s kids

image of Dr. Day in white coat in the lobby of Kentucky Children's Hospital
Scottie B. Day, M.D., is the Physician-in-Chief at Kentucky Children’s Hospital and chair of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 15, 2023) A recent report by 2023 Kids Count Data Book studied how economic well-being, education, health and family support impacts a child’s overall well-being, and how those impacts vary from state to state. So how does Kentucky rank? Are parents able to find secure employment, with wages that keep pace with inflation and cost of living? Are the kids doing well in school, meeting education benchmarks and graduating on time? Do they have access to health care, especially mental health resources? How do we fare compared to other states?

Kentucky ranks 40th in children’s overall well-being. This is unacceptable, and we can do better.

Our kids are in crisis. 22% of Kentucky’s kids live in poverty. Without access to affordable, quality childcare and preschool programs, those kids fall behind their peers in developmental and educational benchmarks. More than 41% of children between the ages of 10-17 are overweight or obese. Children who struggle with their weight are at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer later in life. 60% of children and adolescents with major depression receive no mental health care. Since 2019, suicide deaths in individuals ages 10 to 19 increased by almost 70%.

The pattern is clear; how we provide kids now informs their futures, as well as the future of the entire Commonwealth.

This is not to suggest that as children transition to adulthood, they aren’t capable of change and have the knowledge to make better decisions for themselves and their children. But shouldn’t they have the best possible start to begin with? Shouldn’t we utilize every resource to ensure that every child in Kentucky grows up to be a healthy adult?

We need to help families offset the cost of childcare and support childcare workers. Strengthen preschool programs accessibility so kids can build the skills they need to be successful in school. But most importantly, we must invest in kids’ physical and mental health. The stress of poverty, exposure to violence, substance abuse and lack of access to primary care, preventative screenings, proper nutrition are just a few of the factors that adversely affect child’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Adversity doesn’t “build character”; it influences every aspect of a child’s life and continues to inform patterns of behavior for generations.

If we only do what we can do, we will never be more than we are now. Let’s plant the tree now and let the roots take hold to build a stable foundation. Even though we may not see the fruit for years, we can take comfort in knowing that future generations of Kentuckians will be strong and well-nourished.  

Scottie B. Day, M.D., is the Physician-in-Chief at Kentucky Children’s Hospital and chair of the University of Kentucky College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics.

UK HealthCare is the hospitals and clinics of the University of Kentucky. But it is so much more. It is more than 10,000 dedicated health care professionals committed to providing advanced subspecialty care for the most critically injured and ill patients from the Commonwealth and beyond. It also is the home of the state’s only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that cares for the tiniest and sickest newborns, the region’s only Level 1 trauma center and Kentucky’s top hospital ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

As an academic research institution, we are continuously pursuing the next generation of cures, treatments, protocols and policies. Our discoveries have the potential to change what’s medically possible within our lifetimes. Our educators and thought leaders are transforming the health care landscape as our six health professions colleges teach the next generation of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals, spreading the highest standards of care. UK HealthCare is the power of advanced medicine committed to creating a healthier Kentucky, now and for generations to come.