WESLACO, RGV – The goal of Unidos Contra la Diabetes is to reduce the number of new cases of type II diabetes in the next five years.

The nonprofit group believes this will result in a ten percent reduction in the prevalence of diabetes by 2030.

UDC has received statewide and national attention over the past week following a report it helped produce which shows diabetes is decreasing in the Rio Grande Valley while still increasing in Texas as a whole.

Jenny Newcomb

“Diabetes in the Rio Grande Valley is, as we know, a huge problem. Two out of three people in the region have diabetes or are pre-diabetes and the majority do not even know it,” said Jenny Newcomb, executive director of UCD, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the end of a diabetes forum her group hosted.

The goal of UCD was listed in the program notes for the diabetes forum. It read: “To reduce the number of new cases of type II diabetes in five years, resulting in a ten percent reduction in the prevalence of diabetes by 2030. We are committed to doing this by integrating primary and behavioral health for people at risk for diabetes in our community, with a particular emphasis on meeting the needs of low-income and underserved populations.”

Dr. Belinda Reininger, regional dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in Brownsville, summarized the findings of the new report.

“The (UCD) report uses multiple data sources and it is showing that while the diabetes rates in the state of Texas are increasing, in the Rio Grande Valley the rates and the trend on diabetes is starting to not only flatten out but to tip down. So, we are showing some improvement in our rates of diabetes,” Reininger told the Rio Grande Guardian, during the forum.

The above table is part of Dr. Belinda Reininger’s ‘healthcare in the Rio Grande Valley’ report, produced in association with Unidos Contra la Diabetes.

Reininger was quick to point out that while diabetes rates are declining in the Valley, they are still significantly higher than across the state as a whole. “We are still a good 12 points above the state in terms of the prevalence of diabetes,” she said.

Knapp Community Care Foundation awarded a two-year ‘Diabetes Prevention with UCD Health Connect Through Data Sharing’ grant worth $450,000. It runs from March 2019 to Feb. 2012.

Asked what the purpose of the diabetes forum was, Newcomb said: “This group of champions are angled to try and find ways to create a healthier community, coming together around studying data and learning about the issue. Today was really about having innovative conversations, about what can we do differently together. I am learning today just how important it is to change the story, to change how we talk about health and change how we talk about the data that we are reviewing, to engage and to share stories of success around the community.”

Newcomb said she came into the forum thinking about promoting UCD Health Connect and promoting collaboration among community partners to create a healthy Valley.

“But, I am learning that today is really about so much more. It is about learning about how to leverage and collaborate better together using the data that we have.”

Like Reininger, Newcomb was pleased with the findings of the new report but noted there is still a long way to go.

“We are excited to see some promising trends in the Rio Grande Valley. We are showing a decline in diabetes, a decline in obesity over multiple years, whereas the state is showing a slight incline,” Newcomb said.

“But, the challenge to the group in the room and to the group around our community is that even though we are seeing those promising trends, we still have a rate that is significantly higher than the rest of the state and the rest of the nation. And so we can learn from each other and we can still learn from others and we have to keep the foot on the accelerator of the efforts to be able to drive that change.”

Asked why she thought the level of diabetes was declining in the Valley, Newcomb said:  “We can say thank you to so many partners and so many champions like many of the officials and the leaders that we heard from today who have been driving this message and looking for strategies year after year. These are definitely long-term changes. We are seeing the results and the fruits of the labor of so many people. You stand on the shoulders of the great leaders before you and we are just grateful to be able to see the fruit come to fruition. We hope that this generation of leaders can continue that momentum, so that it continues on. Systems change, changing population health is long-term work but it is sure is motivating to see those changes in the prevalence data.”

Newcomb added: “Be aware that there are so many opportunities we have to collaborate together to create a healthier Valley and the impact of that isn’t purely a personal impact, it affects the vibrancy of our community, it affects the vibrancy of our workforce. It affects the joy and the happiness and the quality of life that is here. So, I would just encourage and challenge the audience to think about ways to be more involved in creating a healthier Valley.”

Rep. Martinez’s Perspective

State Rep. Armando Martinez

The keynote speaker at the diabetes forum was state Rep. Armando Martinez of Weslaco. In addition to being a state lawmaker, Martinez works in the healthcare arena as a paramedic.

Interviewed after the event, Martinez focused on remarks by Eddie Olivarez, chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County Health & Human Services. During a panel discussion, Olivarez had said that transportation is the biggest obstacle to quality healthcare for a large swathe of the Valley population.

Martinez said legislation he passed during the 86th Legislature can help. The bill creates a regional transit authority to be administered by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. The new authority will likely focus on increased bus routes and a light rail service stretching the entire length of the Valley. 

“Now that we have the regional transit authority we can attract more funds for it, building a commuter rail and with that our busing service that can reach out into the rural areas and rural communities and transport our patients to these clinics,” Martinez said.

“It is really important to them for access to healthcare. We need to make sure we have some prevention in place so that people do not wait until they are extremely sick to end up at the ER, when their symptoms could have been treated months if not years before.”

Martinez said addressing transportation issues would also be aided by the creation of regional metropolitan planning organization. RGV MPO was created through the merger of three smaller MPOs, one in Hidalgo County, one in Brownsville, and one in Harlingen-San Benito.

“With the MPO merger, with the new transit authority in place as a positioning board, being able to attract federal funding, this gives us a great avenue to get public transportation done. It is a big positive for us. It was a big win during the session, something we have been working on for a long time and now that dream has become a reality.”

Asked what the key points were that he wanted to get across in his keynote speech, Martinez said:

“The downward trends in diabetes, so much of it is associated with diet and prevention and exercise. We want to talk about collaboration and making sure all of our entities are sharing information, working together in order to improve healthcare in the Valley. Access is not about having clinics all over the place, it is about getting patients to those clinics.”

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the fourth in a four-part series focused on a recent diabetes forum hosted by Unidos Contra la Diabetes. Click here to read Part One, featuring the analysis of Dr. Belinda Reininger. Click here to read Part Two, featuring the analysis of Dr. Rose Gowen. Click here to read Part Three, featuring the analysis of Eddie Olivarez.