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Rio Grande Valley Healthcare Workforce Challenges

WGU to Advance Health Equity and High-Quality Education with Health Equity Conference, Oct. 17, in Texas

The land of convergence, transformations, and advancements, the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) along the United States - Mexico border is an archetype of diversity in every sense. Agricultural, industrial, and real estate developments are the new common themes associated with this region owing to the large economic and geographic transformations. Despite this growth trajectory, the region still has serious issues to tackle, including poverty, education, and the pivotal one, value-based healthcare.

The RGV area is critically challenged in the health sector – there’s an acute dearth of physicians, nurses, and other health professionals. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, RGV is projected to have the state’s greatest percentage of unmet demand for nurses at 27.2%, representing 6,274 full-time nursing positions by 2032. The region will also face a shortage of 722 primary care full-time equivalents by 2030. The ratio of RGV and Texas population to the primary care physicians, according to the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, is presented below:

“It’s not that the people are unwilling to improve their situation, it’s more to do with opportunities and access. Educating and reskilling the workforce is central to the success of the value movement, but when one is trapped between existential choices of education and insurance versus food, we all know what’s going to happen,” said Eric Weaver, executive director for the Institute for Advancing Health Value at the Michael O. Leavitt School of Health at Western Governors University (WGU). “The Rio Grande Valley has the potential to change, we just need to penetrate the system strategically and drive it forward. We cannot be bystanders; we need to be action oriented.”

RGV is not the lone sufferer when it comes to healthcare crisis, it is rather a mirror to the country’s stagnated rural health system. Lack of access to affordable healthcare and a medically safe environment are the challenges rural America regularly addresses. Adding to the mix, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the situation with hospital closings, lack of resources, and medical professionals’ quitting. The health professionals quitting crisis has resulted in the largest nursing shortage ever recorded in the history of the U.S. The American Nurses Association estimates the demand for new registered nurses (R.N.) in the U.S. to reach 1.2 million by 2030. Despite this shortage, more than 90,000 qualified students in the U.S. were turned away from nursing programs in 2021 because of a multitude of reasons, including the lack of infrastructure and faculty, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

“To witness change, we must first create pathways. We need to be receptive toward emerging technologies and the new models of higher education to serve the underrepresented populations in a better way. We cannot fix inequity by repeating what’s always been done. We must remove barriers, put in support systems, and collaborate at all levels, and Accelerator 2023 is a step in that direction,” said Kimberly Kelly-Cortez, WGU senior associate dean and director of programs (Prelicensure), Leavitt School of Health.

The experts at the Institute of Advancing Health Value at WGU’s Michael O. Leavitt School of Health at WGU and AltaCair, an accountable care organization, recognize that it’s not a talent gap that exists in RGV, it’s an opportunity gap. To address the disparities in health equity, value-based care, and the nursing workforce in RGV, thought leaders from the region and WGU are collaborating with competitors at Accelerator2023.

This research-backed program will drive impact, transform systems, and ensure sustainable and equitable change for the future health system of the region. The key themes will be access to healthcare, innovative and high-quality health and nurse education programs, nutrition security, and preventative care. The program will be scalable and replicable to advance health equity for vulnerable populations nationwide.

“Better patient outcomes are a result of well-qualified nurses with whom the patients can relate well and share their concerns comfortably. With nearly a 90% Hispanic population, the Rio Grande Valley needs local nurse students who can speak the language, understand problems, and then improve the lives of those they care for,” said Janelle Sokolowich, WGU academic vice president and dean, Leavitt School of Health. “It’s important that amidst this, we care for nursing students by ensuring they have the right opportunity to achieve their dream of high-quality affordable education right where they are. With WGU’s innovative competency-based nursing programs, like the Bachelor of Science in Nursing Prelicensure degree, students with absolutely no background in nursing can join the field. With collaborative solutions in the RGV, we aim to bring about a change that’s taken too long to come about.”

The healthcare system in the RGV area came under the microscope in 2009 when surgeon, writer, and public health researcher, Dr. Atul Gawande (MPH), wrote his landmark article, “The Cost Conundrum”, that was published in The New Yorker. His careful assessment of McAllen, Texas, a small city on the border, found that it had the most expensive healthcare system in the nation. The article’s impact could not be missed and became mandatory reading during the debate surrounding President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010. The article influenced policy discussions and encouraged providers to reassess their practices. Despite conversations following Gawande’s article, RGV’s health landscape hasn’t experienced much change in the last 14 years. Value-based care and health equity still need to be addressed adequately to yield impact.

The Accelerator 2023 health equity conference will bring together all the key stakeholders and encourage coopetition to spark RGV’s sustainable community-based ecosystem for an improved and equitable landscape. The efforts will be geared toward fostering impactful strategies that drive high-level tactical executions. The vision is to think beyond man-made geographical borders and develop a scalable model with replicable results to optimize the overall health equity structure.

Accelerator2023, will be held Tuesday, Oct. 17, in Mission, Texas. Witness the transformation in real-time and join those working to advance the Rio Grande Valley. Register here.

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