Leaders in health, education and the local community gathered at the University of Texas-Pan American’s Student Union Theater Nov. 28 to attend the third University of Texas VISTASummit.
The first two UT VISTASummits focused on the issues of economic welfare and education in the Rio Grande Valley. Health was the topic this time around, and throughout the event, panelists addressed the issue of health care disparities, and discussed ways to improve healthcare in the area.
The summit comes just months after plans to build a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley were announced.
Currently, the plan to build the medical school in the Valley calls for two buildings in Harlingen, a school of public health in Brownsville, and the transformation of the Regional Academic Health Center behind the Health Science and Human Services building at UTPA.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, who is also a transplant surgeon and pediatrician, was the first to speak at the summit, which was separated into four panels that addressed different questions and themes.
“I’m convinced that if we work together, we will advance this region whether in education or health care,” he said, mentioning efforts that the UT System made toward advancing the education of health care professionals in the Valley. Once again, he said that he would make it his mission to see that a medical school is built in the region.
The summit was presented in conference style with each panelist addressing the audience that gathered in the Student Union Theater. Panelists were given a certain amount of time to speak and once they finished, the next group was introduced.
Joseph McCormick, regional dean at University of Texas Health and Science Center, spoke to the VISTASummit audience before he introduced the first set of panelists, stating that diabetes and obesity cost this region $20 billion a year in healthcare.
All members of the panel spoke about what the organizations they belong to are doing to improve the issues in the Valley, such as Harlingen Independent School District’s “Kids in the Kitchen” which teaches children about eating healthy.
UTPA President Robert Nelsen, South Texas College President Shirley Reed, and other leaders in higher education addressed the issue of how schools in the UT System are preparing the next generation of health professionals in the Valley.
When asked if the Valley’s health care community was prepared to deal with the growing population and the growing number of people trying to access effective health care, President and CEO of Valley Baptist Hospital Manny Vela spoke bluntly.
“Short answer is no,” he said. “That is why Valley Baptist is such a staunch supporter of comprehensive Medicaid and the creation of a med school in the Valley.”
As an example of the growing population, Hidalgo County increased from 686,034 people in 2006 to 726,604 in 2008, according to the McAllen Chamber of Commerce website.
Before the summit finished at 3:30 p.m., Nelsen approached the podium and addressed the audience for the last time.
“I live in the south, it’s my home and my heart is here. All you have to do is go out to the colonias and you will see,” he said. “The stakes are so high, but none of us can do it alone. Pan American can’t do it alone. UT System can’t do it alone. We have to do it together.”