“We want to decrease the gap”: Program hopes to overcome health divide in Delta

Published: Sep. 19, 2021 at 6:25 PM CDT
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - Access to proper healthcare is a growing concern in rural areas like the Delta, and one program in Northeast Arkansas hopes to change that.

Here in Arkansas, there are only around 120 primary care physicians for every 100,000 people.

2018 data shows less than 340 PCPs for all Northeast Arkansas.

“I believe there’s a lot of outreach programs out there, but a lot of the people are not getting the information,” said Clark Phillips, Pastor of New St. Paul Missionary Baptist in Blytheville.

Phillips has lived in Mississippi County for 13 years, and in that time, he’s seen firsthand the lack of access to something as simple as healthcare in rural areas.

“Everybody don’t have an automobile per se that can go long-distance,” said Phillips.

That’s where the Delta Population Health Institute comes in.

It’s part of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State’s effort to address health disparities in the Delta.

Dr. Brookshield Laurent is the Executive Director for DPHI.

“If you want to create a culture of health, you have to address the conditions where people live, work, play and grow. Those are the major drivers for health outcomes,” said Laurent. “Whether it would be in geography, rural, urban, race, gender, ethnicity, age groups. All different types of populations of people who have different health outcomes.”

Laurent says DPHI and NYIT use several tools to help tackle the health divide in Arkansas and Southeast Missouri.

“What DPHI exists to do is to leverage its institutional assets through education, policy, research, and community engagement to address those upstream factors,” Laurent said.

One of those tools is the Delta Care-A-Van, a mobile health unit that brings the doctor to the community.

Phillips took advantage of the Care-A-Van by hosting a COVID vaccine clinic at his church.

“That was a blessing for the church and for the community,” said Phillips.

The Care-A-Van focuses on more than just COVID-related healthcare.

“Prior to the pandemic, health education and screening and preventive screening, prevention medicine is what we would provide,” said Laurent.

Laurent says health education is one of the best ways to start closing the gap in healthcare.

Since starting the program in 2019, the Care-A-Van has been invited to more than 25 cities in Region 8.

“When we do work with communities, it is usually an invitation, people invite us. And that’s important. People have to be ready for change, they have to be ready to consider another, other options to be healthy,” said Laurent.

Getting the doctor to the community is just one of many steps that must happen to make progress in the fight to close the health divide.

“When you’re addressing health, it’s not a one-and-done activity, you have to be number one committed, and you have to establish a relationship over a long period of time,” said Laurent.

In addition to bringing the Care-A-Van to communities, NYIT is putting students in these areas.

Dr. Valencia Andrews-Pirtle works at East Arkansas Family Health Centers and helps mentor students with NYIT.

“We are making a change in people’s lives by being able to give them access to medication and just keep things in order,” said Andrews-Pirtle.

NYIT has several students doing rotations in the Delta, and alumni with plans to practice in more rural communities when they finish residency.

“When we talk about health, it’s not going to be overnight, it takes time,” said Laurent. “One of our first steps in working with the community is identifying those assets. And the assets could be leadership, the assets could be community-based organizations, faith-based organizations.”

DPHI works with communities to identify what challenges they might be facing, and what health issues could be a concern in the area.

There are several challenges that a rural community could face in the fight for proper healthcare.

Connectivity problems, food insecurity, poverty, and lack of communication all affect health outcomes in communities.

“When it comes to collecting data in rural areas, that’s something that can be improved upon significantly because that type of data is what’s needed for people and policymakers specifically to know what kind of resources are needed,” said Laurent.

Laurent said while it will take at least a decade to see positive change in the overall physical health of a community, DPHI has seen a greater reaction from communities to health to education and applying initiatives to schools and workplaces.

“The gap that we see in the health outcomes in different groups of people, different populations of people, between people of color, different genders, et cetera, we want to decrease the gap.”

To see a lasting impact, though, it’s going to take more work from outreach programs, but more importantly from within these communities, Laurent said.

“We have to work with undergrad programs, municipal leaders, educators, community leaders on the ground level, people who have the heartbeat of their community to do that,” said Laurent.

If you live in a community that could benefit from an outreach program like DPHI, Laurent says the first thing you need to do is identify what assets are available to you.

Laurent says assets could be leadership, or community, or faith-based organizations.

The next step is finding what will benefit your entire community, and what issues you need to tackle.

If your community is interested in working with DPHI, click here for more information.

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