Diabetes in the Rio Grande Valley

By Joey Gomez
Looking to put the problem of diabetes in the Rio Grande Valley into perspective, health experts have estimated that nearly 11 percent of the population, or 120,000 people in South Texas have the disease.
At a summit organized by the South Texas/RGV Diabetes Initiative (STDI) at the University of Texas-Pan American on Jan. 11, a panel of medical professionals and specialists pooled their thoughts to explain just how devastating the disease is in the region.
“It affects every single member of our community and our society. It knows no bounds, but the cure for the problem is knowledge. The answer is initiative. That’s what we’re trying to do today,” said Dr. Carlos Cardenas, Chairman of the Board at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, who offered introductory remarks at the event.
Panelists at the event included noted adjunct professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center-School of Rural Public Health, Dr. Maria C. Allen, a foremost expert on the subject who has dedicated her life to combatting the disease.
Also offering their feedback was Dr. Belinda Reininger, an associate professor with the University of Texas, School of Public Health; Aaron Thornburn, vice-president and partner with Shepard & Walton Life Benefits Division for the McAllen, Harlingen and Austin area; and Hidalgo County’s Chief Administrative Officer for Health and Human Services, Eddie Olivarez; and Dr. Marcel Twahirwa.
Dr. Twahirwa is an endocrinologist who is currently the medical director of the Joslin Diabetes Center Affiliate at DHR.
“You cannot treat a diabetes patient without education,” Dr Twahirwa said. “This event is very important because of the issues we have in the Valley. We only hope to have more of these in the near future. This is just the beginning. We need to have more of this.”
STDI is an ongoing effort being led by DHR, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Diabetes Care Project. Its mission is to educate patients, healthcare providers and lawmakers on the value of developing personalized management plans for diabetes patients.
The goal is to improve patient health outcomes and lower costs for the entire health system, the group says on its website.
“We need to come together in this community, and work together to be able to rid the Valley of diabetes, said UTPA president, Dr. Robert Nelsen in a video message to attendees at the summit. “Instead of being known as the place where we have double the average of people without insurance, 20 percent of the people more with diabetes, let’s become the model of the place that got rid of diabetes.”
Almost 11 percent of the 1.2 million people in South Texas, or about 120,000 have the disease, according to the National Minority Quality Forum, a research organization dedicated to ensuring that “high-risk racial and ethnic populations and communities receive optimal health care,” according to its president, Dr. Gary Puckrein who was a keynote speaker at the event.
The problem of diabetes is compounded by a region that has more than a quarter of its population (25.3 percent) uninsured, Dr. Puckrein said.
When you factor in the undiagnosed cases and pre-diabetic cases in the Valley, that 11 percent starts to become almost 30 to 40 percent of the population with the disease, according to DHR officials.
“The biggest challenge we have is we see patients sometimes when it’s too late. We see them after a traumatic event has happened. Our goal is to catch them early on, that’s why this is so important,” said Israel Rocha, DHR government and public affairs officer who moderated the panel of experts at the event. “When you’re in a community where people don’t have insurance, when they don’t have access to medical care, medical education is one of the things you can do to help them get their disease in check so it doesn’t become an uncontrollable chronic condition before a traumatic life event happens.”