Summit emphasizes urgent need for a healthier Rio Grande Valley

Escalating health problems across the nation are reaching an epidemic scale and South Texans are suffering more than most. The area has some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the country.

With one of the fastest rising populations in the country, it’s a situation that South Texans are working hard to address.  

State and national leaders in health care recently gathered at The University of Texas – Pan American in Edinburg to discuss the urgent need to improve the critical state of health in the Valley.

The event – Vista Summit: Health – was hosted by Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa and the UT System and was the third in a series of summits addressing how to strengthen the economic vitality of the Valley and how to offer more innovative educational opportunities.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity before us,” said UT Brownsville President Juliet V. Garcia. “We have a living laboratory, right here in the Rio Grande Valley, to see how quickly and efficiently and effectively we can ramp up health education and develop programs that will benefit communities across the nation.”

An audience of over 200 participants heard from some of the Valley’s biggest champions. Panels of doctors, health care providers, educators, business leaders, philanthropists and community members shared their tireless efforts to make a healthier Valley.

Speakers included a panel of community and business leaders who work every day to make the Valley healthier. From successful wellness programs to farmers’ markets and community gardens – there is no question the region is making major strides.

Another panel of some of the Valley’s most prominent leaders in education, including Presidents Nelsen and Garcia, shared the innovative ways they are preparing the next generation of health care workers.

“New technology is crucial. We can increase the number of nurses we’re educating. We can increase the number of physicians we have out there. We can also help them be better prepared,” said President Nelsen. “[With simulated teaching technology,] nurses get experiences they’ll never see in the hospitals. And eventually they may see it and they’ll be able to save a life through technology.

Speaking to the chronic health conditions in the Valley, panelists of health experts and leaders discussed the ways health care will be restructured in the Valley to customize the special needs of the region and its growing population.

Also joining the discussion was Gil Penalosa, Executive Director of 8 to 80 Cities – a non-profit organization dedicated to making cities safer, more livable and more enjoyable. An advocate for creating vibrant and healthy cities, Penalosa encourages places like the Valley to creatively use real estate at hand to create a walking- and biking-friendly city.

“In order to create change, we need to be a broad alliance,” said Penalosa. “We need to get everybody on board. It’s like a three-legged stool: one of the legs is the elected officials, another leg is the public sector and the third leg is the community. With the three legs working together, we can deliver a shared sense of urgency – and with a shared sense of urgency we will be able to transform our community, then the state, then the country.”

A final panel of community members reflected on the day. One of those panelists was Sanjuana Zavala, a biology student at UT Brownsville.

 “It’s very important for me to see the progress being made as health is changing here in the Valley,” said Zavala. “Seeing the game-changers get together for one day and talk about what we’re doing together and see how we are interconnected.”

Vista Summit: Health was a first-hand look at the significant progress the Valley has made to become healthier and the innovative ways the South Texas region plans to change. While panelists and participants agreed that there is much left to do, a collective theme from the day became clear: They are all in this together.

“I am convinced that if we work together we will advance this region as a leader in providing innovative solutions to the challenges we face in education, in health care, and in economic development,” said Chancellor Cigarroa. “And as a result of this process, we will create a model for the improvement of health, education and community prosperity in Texas and nationwide. This is an important time in the history of Rio Grande Valley and its people, and we have an opportunity to seize this moment and make a difference in the lives of our children and grandchildren, not only over the next few years, but for generations to come.”

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