Even after three decades away from the Valley, some things never change, according to Rio Grande Regional Hospital CEO Cris Rivera.
Among its gains in economic development and positive strides in education and growth, the region still finds itself behind the eight-ball when it comes to healthcare.
Positive developments ahead in the Valley, including an upcoming medical school, belie some serious questions still needing to be answered as the region moves forward, according to Rivera, who graduated from Edinburg High School in 1974. After having worked in San Antonio, Houston, Louisiana, and Kansas, she moved back recently to find that the Valley, even after 30 years, is still fragmented from a healthcare perspective.
“I think that cities are starting to work together and are more united for the betterment of the entire Valley, but healthcare is still somewhat fragmented, and the people of the Valley are still having to leave for healthcare services,” Rivera said. “In coming back to the Valley, it was really important for me that I start working with the community leaders and healthcare leaders in trying to find a structure, a vehicle or method, to be able to not only improve healthcare, but also support the people of the Valley locally and meet their healthcare needs locally.”
In short, the mission is to find a way to begin to appeal to leaders in business, education, and medical communities to “sincerely and genuinely” improve the healthcare of the Valley. At issue, Rivera says, is something she noticed immediately when she began her tenure as CEO earlier this year.
People are still going away for healthcare services, so as a result, families are being displaced, which causes significant burden and hardship. We need to find a way to take care of them locally, and we need to bring those services here, Rivera said.
“That’s we need to do. We need to bring these physicians down here to take care of our patients. It’s no longer the other way around,” Rivera said. “I am looking for ways to collaborate and work together to truly start to improve the healthcare in the community, and then provide the level of healthcare that we so desperately need locally so we don’t have to travel to other places to get services.”
The Valley is severely underserved medically. The national average is 240 doctors for every 100,000 patients. In Texas, the rate is decreased to 165 for 100,000 patients, but in the Valley there are 124 doctors for every 100,000 patients. In Starr County, there are 27 doctors for every 100,000 patients.
How to do it: Income guarantees for doctors?
Efforts are currently underway to install a program to attract physicians through income guarantees. Akin to a loan for doctors new to the region, hospitals can guarantee income for a length of time while they develop their practice to a point where they can stand alone financially. If doctors stay within the community for three years or more, the loan can be forgiven, meaning they don’t have to pay it back. Rivera said RGR is currently evaluating how they can implement that program in the Valley.
The hospital also provides stipends to physicians, which can also be forgiven. All they need to do is make sure they work out of any local hospitals. It is not required that they work out of just one facility, Rivera said.
“If these doctors work out of Rio Grande Regional, that’s excellent, but if they need to work at Knapp Medical or DHR, that’s fine, too, because guess what? They are working in the Rio Grande Valley. That’s the goal,” Rivera said. “It’s to have physicians who are working in the Rio Grande Valley – to get them here, get them to improve the healthcare of the Rio Grande Valley, and get them to stay here. I will not set up any barriers or make anything difficult for them. Let them work wherever they need to work, because the goal here is to take care of the people. We need them here.”
“Our vision is to help the Rio Grande Valley. It’s not just about helping Rio Grande Regional Hospital,” Rivera said. “Of course, I have that responsibility, but I’m taking it a step further. I am willing to use these stipends to help doctors come to the Valley.”
Brandishing the only pediatric heart program in the Valley, Rivera said she made it a priority to bring doctors down from San Antonio to Rio Grande Regional Hospital to treat patients.
“I myself went down to that facility and I told him ‘I need you here. I don’t need my patients coming up to you.’ He agreed. So every Tuesday, he is available for Rio Grande Regional,” Rivera said.
Future medical school pivotal to recruit doctors
Not only will the organization of the future medical school in the Valley be pivotal for doctor recruitment, its success will also take the collaboration of the community, business leaders, school districts, and city officials from across the region.
One important factor to consider, Rivera says, is to remember that the family element is of the upmost importance when planning for the future school.
Physicians and pre-med students have families they need to relocate. These families are looking for appropriate schools for their children. They are looking for appropriate services.
We need to make sure we have community leaders who are aligned with our vision to improve the healthcare of our community, Rivera said.
“They have to work on improving the healthcare of a school district. Businesses have to work on improving the services provided, whether it’s a car dealership, restaurant, management, or consulting company,” she said. “Whatever the case may be, the new families we want to recruit to this area are just that – families. They are not individual people.”
The next step?
Rivera said she would like to begin working towards collaboration so leaders like Dr. Carlos Cardenas at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and Elmo Lopez at McAllen Medical Center can come together and communicate to the community that we are all able to work together.
“Enough of this competition mentality,” Rivera said. “We all want to tell our story, but let’s work together to improve the healthcare of our children.”