The ancient Roman poet Virgil once wrote, “The greatest wealth is health.”
While it often proves difficult to treasure that wealth when we’re healthy, we fully understand its value when we’re not.
I believe Arkansas’ First District has seen firsthand the value of health; mainly because many of our residents have seen it slipping away, especially within the underserved Delta region. In terms of average life expectancy, 8 of the 10 lowest counties in Arkansas reside within the Delta at about 70-73 years of age. In fact, an average resident within Phillips County — the county with the shortest life expectancy — live a full decade less than an average resident in Northwest Arkansas’ Benton County — the county with the longest life expectancy. In the First District’s three southernmost counties — Chicot, Desha, and Lincoln — 40 percent of adults suffer from high blood pressure; another 40 percent are classified as obese; and still, 30 percent have diabetes. In 2010, Arkansas had an overall diabetes prevalence rate of 9 percent, while the Delta as a whole had rates of 19-20 percent.
Compounding this problem, the First District has faced an uphill battle to provide a high standard of healthcare to its residents. It’s seen hospital closures — such as the closure of Crittenden Regional Hospital during September — and it’s had difficulty attracting new healthcare providers.
The region, however, is not without resources from the state or the federal level to improve the health and wellness of those residents who call it home. Perhaps, the biggest problem involves dedicating a large amount of healthcare resources to the Delta without seeing any significant, positive change.
But change may loom on the horizon.
Last year, Arkansas State University announced it would explore the possibility of adding a medical school to its main campus in Jonesboro. Those explorations turned into reality less than a year later as the university partnered with the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) to establish a college of osteopathic medicine with the intention of enrolling 115 students by 2016.
The immediate benefit involves the presence of a talent pool of physicians within the First District. Upon graduating, a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) must complete a residency or an internship. Resident doctors create revenue at hospitals because they work at the physician’s level while only receiving 20 percent of the salary of a normal physician. In addition, about 60 percent of D.O.s work in primary care fields, including family medicine, general internal medicine, and pediatrics. The Delta has long needed more primary care physicians, and a high percentage of them could reasonably come from this college.
I recently had the chance to participate in a Graduate Medical Education (GME) Summit looking at the expansion of healthcare education across the country, including the First District. NYIT has claimed the presence of this new college will have a $70 million economic impact on the region. I say that figure is much higher in another type of wealth — health.