It takes everyone to improve the health and quality of living in a community.
And on Nov. 28, The University of Texas-Pan American, along with The University of Texas System and The University of Texas at Brownsville, brought together representatives of public and private health care organizations, nonprofit groups, educators and others with a vested interest in diminishing the health care disparities in the Rio Grande Valley for its third UT VistaSummit.
Throughout the daylong conference at UTPA, participants heard the common message of working together to improve the health of Valley residents. Panelists talked about various initiatives that they've started to bring together their communities to improve health. But they all said more needs to be done to educate residents and political leaders about what needs to be done to make the area a healthier place.
"I am convinced that as we work together, in partnership with everyone here this morning ... that we will advance this region as a leader in finding innovative solutions to the challenges that we face, whether it be in education, whether it be health care, as well as a positive impact in the economic well-being of this region," said UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa. "This is an important time in the history of the Rio Grande Valley and its people."
UT Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen boasted about his institution's high success rate in various health-related programs. Students enrolled in the UT Austin/UTPA Cooperative Pharmacy and Clinical Laboratory Technician and Communication Disorder programs have a 100 percent pass rate on licensure exams and students in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program have a 96.4 percent pass rate on their licensing exams. Over the past five years, 64 percent of UTPA students who apply to medical school are accepted, as opposed to the state average of 33 percent.
"I'm very proud of this University and I'm very proud of The University of Texas System," Nelsen said. "I'm proud to be a partner with UT Brownsville, with Texas Southmost College, with South Texas College and (STC President) Shirley Reed, with Texas State Technical College - all of us working together to make a difference. We have to do the right thing."
Even though UTPA and its fellow higher education institutions in the Valley are producing highly skilled health care professionals, there are other statistics -- alarming ones -- that show the area still has a ways to go to close the gaps in health care access.
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country -- 24 percent -- and in the Valley those numbers increase to more than 30 percent in each of the area's four counties. The Valley also has a high poverty rate, with more than 30 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
Combining high percentages of uninsured people, families living in poverty and about a third of the Valley's population living with diabetes, more than half with obesity and many more with other health problems creates "a recipe for disaster," Nelsen said.
"Today we have to figure out how to do more of the right thing. What do we have to do beyond graduating students?" Nelsen said. "Education is the answer but not the solution in and of itself."
UTB President Juliet V. Garcia said even though the region's population is growing rapidly, the area still does not have enough health care professionals to treat them.
"We have an extraordinary opportunity before us, we have a living laboratory right here in the Rio Grande Valley to see how quickly, how efficiently, how effectively, we can ramp up health education and develop programs that will benefit communities much like us across the nation," Garcia said. "It is in our hands to forever end the legacy of diabetes, of obesity, of heart disease - being one of the things our generation inherits in the Rio Grande Valley," Garcia said.
Participants at the summit also heard from Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities, a nonprofit group based out of Canada, who encouraged area leaders to look into ways to increase opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists to use roadways, and from Anne Dunkelberg, associate director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy analysis group based in Austin, about how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would give more Texans access to health care.
The UT System held its first VistaSummit last year with UTPA and UTB at Brownsville's campus to inform philanthropic foundations about what educational institutions and the public and private sectors throughout the Valley were doing to improve the area's quality of life and encourage the nonprofit groups to help them achieve their goals. At that two-day event, three areas were identified in which the Valley needed to focus to ensure the community would thrive as it continues to grow: education, health and economic development.
The second UT VistaSummit was held last spring and focused on education. During that event, local school districts and higher education institutions laid out four initiatives to improve the pipeline of sending students from K-12 systems to college and asked for the philanthropic groups' help to fund them.
The next VistaSummit will focus on economic prosperity.
For more information on the UT VistaSummit, visit www.vistasummit.com.