January 11, 2002 | By: George Lewis

University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. has announced a significant increase in the scope and impact of health education in Kentucky, which ranks near the bottom in nearly all health-status indicators.

Health Education through Extension Leadership (HEEL) represents a new partnership between the UK College of Medicine and its Kentucky School of Public Health, and the College of Agriculture and its Cooperative Extension Service, which provides professional staff in all 120 Kentucky counties.

This partnership is made possible, in part, through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. HEEL will be funded at the level of $800,000 for fiscal year 2001-2002. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell led the effort to secure this funding.

"This funding would not have come to UK or to the state had it not been for Sen. McConnell directing it to us," Todd said.

"I believe that all Kentuckians, whether they live in a small town or a big city, should have access to basic health care information," Senator McConnell said. "I worked hard to bring this funding home, and I am excited that UK students and researchers will be leading the fight to improve the quality of health of all Kentuckians."

HEEL, in combination with current programs in rural health services and wellness education programs, is meant to enhance Cooperative Extension agents' capacity to deliver health education statewide.

"Extension agents throughout the state are in daily contact with individuals and families. They have tremendous credibility and a forum to mobilize communities to improve their health," Todd said.

The program will function through health education faculty specialists who will collaborate with extension agents, health departments, school systems and community organizations throughout the state to take basic health education to the public. The specialists and extension agents will apply the latest science-based strategy, technology and programs that have shown evidence of effectiveness in producing health behavior change and mobilizing communities to improve their health. A national search is under way for HEEL faculty, who will be jointly appointed in the Kentucky School of Public Health and the College of Agriculture.

Todd said HEEL is an example of the way he likes to see the university combine academics and outreach to serve the entire commonwealth.

"This marks a new beginning and a new partnership," he said. "We're going to provide a link that's been missing between the research and academics of the university and the health issues of the people of the commonwealth. What has been lacking is the availability of health education specialists to work with extension agents to modify citizens' health behaviors, both individually and on a community-wide basis."

Todd noted statistics that show Kentucky with abnormally high incidences of death related to cancers, heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease. For example: Kentucky's cancer mortality rate for 1994 through 1998 was 12 percent higher than the national rate; Kentucky's lung cancer incidence rate is about 50 percent higher than the national rate; Kentucky's invasive cervical cancer incidence rate is about 40 percent higher than the national rate (source: UK Markey Cancer Center).