Regents fund initiative to improve health of Texans

AUSTIN – The University of Texas System Board of Regents Thursday approved $5 million in funding to develop a strategic plan to address Texas’ most critical public health needs.

Currently, Texas ranks 31st in the nation in overall health based on a number of factors, including high rates of diabetes and obesity, a lack of medical providers and a high rate of medically uninsured residents, said David Lakey, M.D., who recently stepped down as the Texas health commissioner to be associate vice chancellor of population health at the UT System.

If Texas performed as well as the top states in the nation in the health arena, 36 percent of deaths related to heart disease could be prevented and 18 percent of deaths caused by cancer could be prevented, Lakey said.

“We don’t need new medicines to do this. We don’t need new technology to do this,” said Lakey, who also serves a dual role as senior vice president for population health at UT Health Northeast. “We just need to be able to perform at the level that other states are.”

The key is population health care, which focuses on implementing community-wide wellness and prevention measures as opposed to traditional health care, which addresses acute care one patient at a time. Population health also addresses disparities in health, including race, ethnicity, education, income and geographic location, Lakey said.

Improving the health of Texans will require coordination between a number of partners, including schools, elected officials, health care providers and urban planners, Lakey said. The UT System is well-positioned to take a leadership role because its institutions train the majority of health care providers in the state, UT faculty have extensive expertise and leadership roles in both public health and medical care across the state, and UT campuses are located in areas of extreme need, which include the Rio Grande Valley, east Texas and urban centers. 

“Higher education has a critical role, and there’s a gap in the state of Texas right now that the University of Texas can fill to bring these pieces of the puzzle together,” Lakey said. “We want to drive the population health component of the University of Texas. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity here for the UT System to make a huge impact on the lives of 27 million Texans.”

Kirk Calhoun, M.D., president of UT Health Northeast, said when he became a physician, he was trained to believe the relationship between a doctor and a patient was the most important factor in improving health care.

“That relationship is still critical, but what we’ve come to realize over the last 25 years is that population health is the only way that we’re going to approach the problem of chronic disease and do it in a way that our society can afford,” he said. “We have to cure populations, not just individuals. I believe the University of Texas should step up right now and take that leadership role.”

The funding from the Board of Regents will be used to support data collection and collaboration among faculty across the UT System as the strategic plan is developed over the next two years.

“This initiative is perfectly aligned with the UT System’s mission to improve the lives of Texas through education, research and health care,” said Regent Robert Stillwell, chairman of the Health Affairs Committee. “We are pleased and proud to be proactive in the effort to address Texas’ most critical health needs.”

About The University of Texas System

Educating students, providing care for patients, conducting groundbreaking research and serving the needs of Texans and the nation for more than 130 years, The University of Texas System is one of the largest public university systems in the United States, with nine academic universities, six health institutions and an enrollment of more than 214,000. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees, educates two-thirds of the state’s health care professionals annually and accounts for almost 70 percent of all research funds awarded to public universities in Texas. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $15.6 billion (FY 2015) including $3 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. With about 90,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.

Background Materials