McALLEN, RGV – The academic collaboration agreement signed with South Texas College on Friday is just the start of what the University of Houston College of Pharmacy hopes will be a very strong presence in the Rio Grande Valley.

UHCOP believes its new Hispanic Healthcare Initiative will be of value to the region because of its emphasis in having pharmacists provide culturally and linguistically competent pharmacy care services to patients.

The College is also close to finalizing a research agreement with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance to help the hospital with diabetes and hypertension initiatives.

When the academic agreement with UHCOP was signed on Friday, STC President Shirley Reed said she hoped it would be the first of many entered into by STC and the University of Houston. Dr. F. Lamar Pritchard, dean of the UH College of Pharmacy, said he does not see why not. The agreement signed Friday aims to provide a streamlined pathway for Valley students to earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree.

Dr. Shirley A. Reed, president of South Texas College.
Dr. Shirley A. Reed, president of South Texas College.

“Today is kind of a kickoff,” Pritchard said, in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the collaborative agreement signing ceremony. “Hopefully, we have broken the ice with this agreement and we can go on to have agreements in fields such as business, law and engineering. We are looking forward to more programs from UH coming down to the Valley.”

Pritchard spoke with pride about UHCOP’s new Hispanic Healthcare Minor program.

“What we are finding is that the Hispanic community sometimes sees barriers to healthcare from not only a language perspective but also a cultural perspective. With healthcare disparities in different populations we find that that is a huge barrier to seeking and yielding positive healthcare outcomes,” Pritchard explained.

“So, we have created our Hispanic Healthcare Minor program to give our students strong backgrounds, not only in the Spanish language but also Hispanic culture. The first year of the program has students in classes run by the UH Hispanic Studies and the UH Spanish Department. The second year of the program they are out doing advanced clinical rotations and primarily Hispanic patient populations.”

The program will see a new development later this year, Pritchard explained. “What we are going to do in the fall is take it a step further. We are going to place the students in our program with families in the Hispanic areas of Houston to live with those families. Many of those families have multi-generations in the home and we are going to ask that no English be spoken in the home and that the family members teach our students everything about their culture.”

Pritchard said the demographic mix in Houston is changing and UHCOP had to adapt accordingly. UH is already recognized as the second most diverse university in the nation.

“For so many years, most of our Hispanic citizens came from Mexico but what we are seeing now is a much stronger percentage coming from Central and South America. We are noticing some differences between those cultures, especially in their heritage and their traditional folk medicine. These are things we need to understand to optimize the health outcomes for them. So, we are excited about that,” Pritchard said.

Asked if non-Hispanic students are being attracted to the Hispanic Healthcare Initiative, Pritchard answered affirmatively.

“We are getting students that have a strong interest in serving the Hispanic communities. When you look at the students that have come through the program thus far, many of them come from Hispanic backgrounds but many are Asian Americans, African Americans, and fortunately, at the University of Houston we have one of the most diverse student populations in the country. We are in an area that has very diverse populations so we are very fortunate to have that diversity within the college. It makes us even stronger. We are very excited about that.”

Many years ago, UHCOP sent students to Monterrey, Mexico, for medical missionary purposes and the College used that for an emersion experience. “Unfortunately, in 2009, we had to stop that because of the violence,” Pritchard said. “But, we have found that we have a rich opportunity right here in Texas and we have been very fortunate to have everybody put this together and have this program in motion and we are just so excited because we think we are going to see tremendous returns.”

Pritchard said UHCOP is also working with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg on some diabetes initiatives in the Hispanic population to try to prevent diabetes from occurring in the first place. “Once Type 2 diabetes is officially diagnosed there has been a ten year progression of disease that cannot be reversed. So, we have to find ways to prevent diabetes from happening in the first place. We are very lucky that we have found a quality partner in Doctors Hospital and we are looking forward to bringing faculty and students to the Rio Grande Valley to help with healthcare delivery as well,” Pritchard said.

Pritchard then spoke about UHCOP’s long term goals for the Valley.

“Long term we would like to increase our presence in the Valley and to use the Valley more in our advanced training of our students in the P4 year. In the P4 year the students are going through many advanced rotations in different types of practices and we hope to bring more students and faculty to the Valley to provide those valuable advanced rotations but to also provide healthcare delivery for the citizens of the Valley,” Pritchard said.

In his remarks at the signing of the academic collaboration agreement with STC, Pritchard spoke about the 2015-16 Update to the State Health Plan released by the Texas Statewide Health Coordinating Council. It showed that population-to-pharmacist ratio in border counties is about twice that of non-border counties. The report also noted a disproportionate distribution of licensed pharmacists in the state, with slightly less than 6 percent of the state’s licensed pharmacists practicing in border counties versus more than 92 percent practicing in metropolitan counties.

“We have got a lot of work to do to provide enough primary healthcare coverage for our citizens, not only statewide but especially in the border counties. We have some counties in West Texas without a single pharmacist. We have got to do a better job of providing more healthcare professionals in the border counties and in West Texas,” Pritchard said.

Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Edinburg, Texas.
Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Edinburg, Texas.

Pritchard pointed out that UH’s College of Pharmacy was only on the second of its kind in the state when it started in 1946. He said that in addition it was also the first professional program at UH. “We have a strong tradition of alumni in the Valley. We want to utilize them as mentors at South Texas College. Many have agreed to do that,” he said.

As for the agreement with DHR, Pritchard said: “We are about to finalize a research agreement to move forward in helping them with some diabetes and hypertension initiatives to improve the health of the citizens of the Valley. That will be a great opportunity for us to expand our advanced rotation offerings here when we have a strong partner like Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. They have been a real pleasure to work with.”

UHCOP’s Hispanic Healthcare Initiative would seem to fit well with one of the goals of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health. The federal agency wants to bridge the disparity gap.

“Cultural competency is one of the main ingredients in closing the disparities gap in health care. It’s the way patients and healthcare professionals can come together and talk about health concerns without cultural differences hindering the conversation, but enhancing it,” HHS’s Office of Minority Health has stated.

“Quite simply, health care services that are respectful of and responsive to the health beliefs, practices and cultural and linguistic needs of diverse patients can help bring about positive health outcomes.”

Editor’s Note: In the main picture accompanying this story, Dr. F. Lamar Pritchard, dean of the UH College of Pharmacy, is pictured giving his remarks at the academic collaborative agreement signing ceremony between South Texas College and the University of Houston College of Pharmacy. It took place at South Texas College’s Pecan Campus in McAllen on Friday, March 27, 2015.