Texas has a thing about being number one. But when it comes to the state of Texans' health, it ranks below the middle of the pack, and it's falling. The United Health Foundation ranked Texas 34th in the country in its 2017 annual report. But there's something that could help: this year's Healthier Texas Summit kicks off in Austin on Oct. 25; it's a conference about how everyday people can achieve healthier outcomes in their own community.
Dr. David Lakey is vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Texas System, and is also an organizer of the event. Lakey says while the overall focus of the summit is how to improve health within our communities, there's also a focus on health policy in the upcoming legislative session.
"It really takes all of us if we want to improve health here in the state of Texas," Lakey says. "We have to have policymakers involved in this because policy sets the environment and a lot of the rules and regulations related to health."
Lakey says statewide policy plays a role in many aspects of people's health, including things like school-based nutrition programs or how much exercise kids get at school. But maternal mortality will likely be one of the top health issues at the legislature next year. Lakey says that's partly because a report several years ago showed that Texas has one of the worst records for maternal mortality in the country.
"We've taken a deeper dive into that ... we still aren't doing good, especially if you look at [how] we're doing with African-Americans: the African-American maternal mortality rate is twice as high as for white folks," Lakey says.
Lakey says one hurdle to making Texas healthier is getting accurate information out to the public. He says there's misinformation especially about vaccines.
"[There's] misinformation because of flawed studies in the past, and, you know, vaccines are safe and I give them to my kids," Lakey says.
But when it comes to the upcoming legislative session, Lakey says some of his top concerns include obtaining enough funding for state mental health services, and also changing Medicaid rules to help improve maternal mortality rates.
"Women are only on Medicaid for 60 days after delivery," Lakey says. "I think we need to continue that for a full year because of all the issues that have been brought up related to maternal mortality."
While there is a cost to those kinds of initiatives, Lakey says they ultimately pay for themselves because people become healthier. And the state has spent money on other prevention initiatives like its anti-tobacco campaign. The logic there is that by cutting into tobacco use, less people will suffer from lung or heart disease, and thus reduce the strain on the health care system.
"The state pays for the lung cancer, the heart disease, all those things that occur because of tobacco," Lakey says.
Lakey says businesses are also a driving force for change in health.
"As they understand that a big chunk of their bottom line is determined by health-care costs, they are deciding whether they'll locate into certain communities based on the health of those communities, so we need to improve overall community health," Lakey says.
At the summit, Lakey will be on a panel to talk to students about pursuing a career in public health. He says there's a lot of opportunity in the field, especially because so much money is spent on health care – about 18 percent of the gross national product.
"There's a lot of jobs there, and there's a lot of good jobs," Lakey says.
He says if students can develop skills like working within different kinds of communities, using data or program management, they'll be primed for jobs in public health, a state health care agency or in the private health care system.
Written by Caroline Covington.