Every January as the new year rolls around, the United Health Foundation releases its America’s Health rankings showing how the health of Arkansans compares with other American states. We use these results as a way to understand health trends in Arkansas and across the United States. While no one is happy that Arkansas ranks 46th overall this year, the good news is we have seen upward movement from our position at 48th last year. We hope this is reflective of the good work going on across the state to address the challenges in access to care as well as behaviors that are associated with poor health outcomes, but clearly more work needs to be done.
We are making progress and developing momentum in a number of areas. Stroke is a great example. After being rock bottom for years, the rate of stroke and stroke outcomes in Arkansas has decreased dramatically over the last few years. This is a testament to the statewide efforts to improve stroke treatment and outcomes. UAMS, the only medical center in the state to achieve national Comprehensive Stroke Center designation, has been a leader in reducing the rate of stroke, collaborating with other providers across the state and spearheading Arkansas SAVES, a telehealth network linking statewide hospital emergency rooms with a stroke neurologist 24 hours a day. Gains in important areas such as stroke clearly demonstrate that by working together we can make progress in other areas.
Because Arkansas is a rural state, many Arkansans don’t have easy access to care simply because of where they live. If we are going to improve the health of our state, we must figure out more efficient ways to reach people in need with excellent service regardless of where they live or how much they earn. Digital health is going to be a tool you will hear a lot more about that will allow us to shrink the state and reach everyone, such as using technology like our cell phones to bring patients and care providers together in real time. Where someone lives should not determine whether they get the best care and possibly whether they live or die. At UAMS, we have just established the Institute for Digital Health and Healthcare Innovation to bring digital tools to the good people of our state to make health care access easier. Our goal is for UAMS and the state of Arkansas to become digital health leaders among rural states, and I am confident that this will help us bend the trajectory of health outcomes in Arkansas.
Just as stroke used to be, cancer is another area where Arkansas lags far behind. Over the past 20 years, cancer death rates in the U.S. have decreased by 5%. In Arkansas, over the same time frame, cancer death rates have actually increased by 9%. We must do something to address problems like the epidemic of prostate and colorectal cancer in men living in southeastern Arkansas. No one is going to come into our state and solve this problem for us. It is essential for us to form partnerships among health care providers and other entities across state, coming together to hold hands and make an impact on cancer prevention, treatment and survivorship. This is why UAMS is seeking the National Cancer Institute designation for its Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 44 Arkansans are diagnosed every day with cancer. At UAMS, about 15,000 cancer patients from across Arkansas come to UAMS doctors each year for treatment. There are currently only 70 NCI-designated cancer centers in the United States, none in Arkansas. Having an NCI-designated cancer center would have an estimated $70 million economic impact on our state and create nearly 1,600 jobs in the first five years. It will give Arkansas cancer patients access to clinical trials and new therapies not currently available in our state and make prevention, screening, education, and treatment programs more widespread throughout the state. According to published data, patients treated at a NCI-designated center for lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancer have a 25% greater chance of survival within the first year after diagnosis. Achieving NCI designation is a lengthy process that will take a lot of work as well as state, community and donor support but we know it’s worth it.
As the state’s only health sciences university and academic medical center, UAMS is a statewide entity with employees living and working in 73 or Arkansas’ 75 counties. We have campuses in Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas as well as regional centers across the state, mostly in rural and underserved areas. We have agreements with almost every hospital and many clinics across the state. Our reach across the state allows us to better perform our tripartite mission of training tomorrow’s health care professionals, providing highly subspecialized care often unavailable anywhere else in Arkansas, and translating knowledge into new therapies through research. Our tagline is “for a better state of health” and that’s the focus of everything that we do. In order to make a significant impact on the health of our state, we must all work together and focus on the whole state, every county and every single citizen.
Editor’s note: Dr. Cam Patterson is the Chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The opinions expressed are those of the author. This commentary first appeared in Talk Business & Politics State of the State 2019 magazine, which you can access here.