Tackling the Rural Health Challenge

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What if taking your child to see an asthma specialist meant missing work and an hours-long drive? What if the nearest oncologist was 100 miles away? 

Physical proximity to quality healthcare is a blessing those of us living in or around big cities sometimes take for granted. But throw a dart at a map of Texas, and you’ll likely hit a spot where access to care is anything but a given. Nearly six in ten Texas physicians practice in just five of our state’s 254 counties. Sixty-four counties have no hospital, and 24 lack even a single primary care physician. 

Improving health care access – and health care outcomes – for the people living in the rural parts of our state is the kind of tough, complex, “if we can’t do it, nobody can” challenge UT institutions love to take on. And as I’ve said many times, the tougher the challenge, the more important it is to collaborate.

Just last month, we saw two great institutions doing just that with the opening of the UT Health Northeast MD Anderson Cancer Center in Tyler. Nobody knows the people and unique needs of their region better than the professionals of UT Health Northeast, and of course MD Anderson is the world’s leader in cancer care. By joining forces, these two institutions will bring care that is both state-of-the-art and convenient to some of the smallest and most isolated communities in Texas. 

At the same time, a developing partnership between UT Health San Antonio’s National Cancer Institute-affiliated Cancer Center and MD Anderson, coupled with a phenomenal $30 million legacy gift from the Mays Family Foundation, is going to make cutting-edge cancer care available to millions of people in South Texas.

MD Anderson is already making a big difference in the Rio Grande Valley, where there are 40 percent fewer doctors and 50 percent fewer nurses per capita than in the state as a whole. Through a tele-mentoring program called Project Echo, MD Anderson specialists are training Valley health care providers in effective cervical cancer screening and treatment. This is a matter of great urgency, since cervical cancer incidence rates in the Rio Grande Valley far exceed both the Texas and national average.

In another part of the state, the Moncrief Cancer Institute at UT Southwestern is doing its part to bring world-class care to vulnerable, underserved communities. Their Mobile Cancer Survivor Clinic is a decked out 18-wheeler which they send to nine north Texas counties. Residents of Tarrant, Ellis, Erath, Hood, Johnson, Navarro, Parker, Somervell and Wise counties are able to be screened for breast, cervical, and colon cancer. They can also receive fitness and nutrition guidance, genetic counseling, or clinical care from a physician assistant or nurse. If more advanced care is required, secure video conferencing technology enables the clinic staff there to loop in doctors from UTSW or elsewhere.

UT Health Northeast’s Breath of Life Asthma Clinic is also taking medical care and expertise to the streets, and to the people who require it. The Airstream bus travels throughout the 27 school districts of Northeast Texas, making sure kids whose parents may lack reliable transportation receive the care they need. So far the clinic has treated more than 1,600 children.

These examples are a just a small sample of the ways UT institutions are tackling the challenge of rural health. We’re going to keep pushing to make great quality care available to all Texans, because we believe 

a) that just as your zip code doesn’t dictate whether you get sick, it shouldn’t dictate whether you get well, and

b) if we can’t do it, nobody can.

Thanks as always for reading. I’ll write again soon.