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WGU Aims to Transform Rio Grande Valley’s Healthcare

Institute for Advancing Health Value to Host Accelerator 2023: Health Equity Conference, Oct. 17, in Texas

The Rio Grande Valley (RGV) – a 50-mile stretch of towns that span the border of Texas and Mexico – or simply the Valley, is one of the fastest growing areas in the United States with large economic and geographic transformations. This region is known for its warm weather, diverse foods, fruits, exotic birds, museums, and culture. And while all this does sound like a utopia, there’s more to RGV than meets the eye – there is the eclipsed reality.

Inherently diverse because of its location, this bilingual, border region is home to 1.4 million people (almost twice the population of El Paso), nearly 90% Hispanic, and has some of the poorest counties in the country: Starr, Hidalgo, Willacy, and Cameron. Issues like poverty and lack of access to healthcare burden the Valley. These factors are the leading cause of health problems, including diabetes, obesity, and cervical cancer.

According to the RGV Health Connect Organization, the region’s median household income is $46,016, compared to $71,347 median household income state-wide in Texas. The region also has 24.7% of families living below poverty level, nearly triple the percentage for the nation. The Rio Grande Regional Hospital states that an estimated 76,000 people in the region have diabetes.

Fourteen years ago, surgeon, writer, and public health researcher, Atul Gawande (M.D., MPH), wrote his landmark article, The Cost Conundrum, published in The New Yorker. Gawande showcased the challenges that health systems confront when dealing with public and private insurers and the paradox between high-cost treatment options and low-quality outcomes. 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.

“Dr. Gawande’s article served as an impetus to get the ball rolling around health equity conversations in the RGV, but the gaps persist, and the families still find themselves struggling for access to affordable and value-based healthcare,” said Eric Weaver, executive director for the Institute for Advancing Health Value at Michael O. Leavitt School of Health, Western Governors University (WGU).

The various health equity issues in the RGV include lack of access to medical care, disparity in treatment options and availability, and unequal patient outcomes for different racial and ethnic groups. The prime causes for these inequities are high healthcare costs, lack of physician access, and few preventative health provisions. According to the current statistics by the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.8% of people under the age of 65 do not have health insurance nationwide, but the percentages for the four poorest counties in the RGV are much higher:

  • Hidalgo County: 33.1%
  • Cameron County: 29.9%
  • Starr County: 28.9%
  • Willacy County: 24.1%
The advancements in the RGV are still in the embryonic stage and it may take some time for the region to overcome these hurdles. The inherent ecosystem needs a push to leverage the power of coopetition to expand access and promote inclusivity.
WGU’s Institute for Advancing Health Value at the Leavitt School of Health and Altacair are collaborating to address these issues through an innovative coopetition program to transform the healthcare landscape of the Rio Grande Valley, and eventually expand to other regions in the country.
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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