Op-Ed: Make Your Lung Health a Priority and Breathe Better, Kentucky

By Neal Moser, M.D., Shawn Jones, M.D., and Jeff Reynolds, M.D.

Neal Shawn Jeff 700

Left to right: Neal Moser, M.D., Shawn Jones, M.D., and Jeff Reynolds, M.D.

Kentucky is famous for many things. Unfortunately, lung health isn’t one of them.

The Commonwealth’s struggles with tobacco and lung cancer are well-documented. But we also rank poorly in deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, influenza, and asthma. The COVID-19 pandemic, which can cause severe respiratory complications, has also worsened the lung health of Kentuckians. And while lung diseases, infections and viruses like COVID-19 don’t discriminate, disparities persist within minority and rural populations across the state.

That’s why the Kentucky Medical Association, the Kentucky Foundation for Medical Care, and the Anthem Foundation have partnered to launch “Breathe Better Kentucky,” a year-long initiative designed to educate all Kentuckians on lung health issues and encourage physician visits to discuss specific concerns.

Many of us have put off routine visits to our doctor in the last 18 months or so because of the pandemic. That has unfortunately led to delay in important screenings, vaccinations, and well visits. It’s also led people with symptoms of lung cancer, such as chronic cough, chest pain, wheezing and shortness of breath to delay physician visits and needed care. For patients who have small, early-stage lung cancer, early detection is critical to successful treatment, as the cure rate can be as high as 80 to 90 percent when caught in the beginning stages.

The problem is even more concerning among people of color and rural populations, because while lung health issues don’t discriminate, certain populations are at higher risk than others. Just to point out a few alarming facts:

  • African American men are 50% more likely to get lung cancer
  • African Americans are half as likely to get flu and pneumonia vaccinations
  • Hispanic children are twice as likely to die from asthma as compared to non-Hispanic whites
  • For lung cancer deaths, four of the five counties nationally with the highest 2014 rates were in Eastern Kentucky, with rates up to 80 percent higher than in 1980.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed disparities in both case numbers and death rates. COVID-19 vaccination efforts have also seen challenges in certain populations, with lower rates of vaccination among Hispanic, African American, and rural Kentuckians.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. We’d like this month to serve as an important reminder to take charge of your lung health by scheduling an appointment with your physician and discussing any symptoms, risk factors, or screening tests you may be eligible for.

We would also encourage you to take preventative steps to ensure your lungs are as healthy as possible. Eliminating all tobacco use, including vapor products, is an enormous first step in the right direction. Quitting can be difficult, so talk to your physician about which cessation method may be right for you. There are a number of free cessation programs available, such as the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program.

It’s also been well documented that COVID-19 can be worse for those with pre-existing conditions, particularly respiratory diseases, so protecting yourself with the safe and proven-effective COVID-19 vaccine is more important than ever. Also here to help are the seasonal flu vaccine and the pneumonia vaccine, which can prevent severe cases of both illnesses. If you haven’t received these important vaccinations already, please make an appointment to do so.

We aren’t out of the woods with COVID-19 yet, and we have a long way to go in eliminating other lung diseases and conditions. However, we hope you’ll take these simple steps towards improving and protecting your overall lung health. More information and resources are available at BreatheBetterKY.org. It’s time to Breathe Better, Kentucky, and make our lung health a priority this year.

About the authors:

Neal Moser, M.D. is a pulmonologist and President of the Kentucky Medical Association. Shawn Jones, M.D. is an otolaryngologist and President of the Kentucky Foundation for Medical Care. Jeff Reynolds, M.D. is Medical Director of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Kentucky.

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