When I was in my early 20s my goal was to somehow make the world a better place. With the wisdom and realism that comes with age, I finally “settled” on trying to help society, one patient at a time.
As a family physician, I have had the honor of attempting to do this in Tyler since 2002. But as physicians, we are more often called to treat illness and disease and are less likely involved in the aspects of prevention.
In our world of 15-minute office visits, how often has your doctor been able to adequately field questions about nutrition, physical activity, and lifestyle changes that are necessary to ensure better health? And so we are the nation that spends the most in terms of health care dollars (health care accounted for 17.5 percent of our gross domestic product in 2014), but our health care outcomes are on par with many Third World nations.
What’s going on? 86 percent of our health care dollars are spent on treating preventable chronic disease such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer. However only 3 cents of the health care dollar goes toward prevention in the U.S.
Last year I was asked to serve as a board member for the Northeast Texas Public Health District (NETHealth). I was honored by this invitation because it re-energized me to work toward improving the health of our community as a whole.
So what is public health and what does NETHealth do for our community? According to the American Public Health Association, “public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play. While a medical doctor treats those who are sick, those in public health try to prevent people from getting sick and injured in the first place. This can mean vaccinating children and adults to prevent the spread of disease. Or educating people about the risks of alcohol and tobacco. Public health sets safety standards to protect workers and develops school nutrition programs to ensure kids have access to healthy food. Public health works to track disease outbreaks and prevent injuries ...”
But what does this really mean for the residents of Tyler? NETHealth is our behind-the-scenes guardian for things we just take for granted. We benefit from:
• Immunizations - 13,000 immunizations and 2,000 flu shots are given each year at a fraction of retail cost
• Restaurant/mobile food truck routine inspections - There are currently 1,286 food establishments in Smith County and 2 out of 3 are in Tyler. NETHealth routinely inspects these establishments to keep us safe as we are eating out.
• Infectious disease prevention/detection – Whether it is Zika, West Nile, Legionella, tuberculosis, or whooping cough, NETHealth spearheads efforts to protect Tyler and seven other East Texas counties. NETHealth provides the lab testing for doctors’ offices and public health clinics throughout Northeast Texas for sexually transmitted diseases.
• Public health emergency preparedness – NETHealth works with the City of Tyler’s Emergency Management Coordinator and stands ready to respond to any community emergency, whether it is weather-related, acts of bio-terrorism, or infectious disease outbreaks. As I volunteered at shelters at the abandoned WalMart on 110, UT Tyler’s Herrington Patriot Center, and Southern Oaks Baptist Church, I remember firsthand Tyler’s response to hurricanes Katrina and Ike. NETHealth helped coordinate the volunteer efforts to assist the thousands of evacuees who sought refuge in our city.
• Water safety - NETHealth conducts water safety testing for Tyler, and over the past five years has tested 6,230 water samples for E. coli and coliform bacteria.
• Milk safety - NETHealth tests milk to ensure safety in Tyler, Smith County, and multiple counties in East Texas
• Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program - Each month, NETHealth’s 21 WIC clinics serve more than 28,000 pregnant women, new mothers, and children up to age 5 in our community • Vital statistics – NETHealth files birth, death and fetal records for many of life’s major events. These records are vital for distributing medical research dollars.
• Fit City Tyler Initiative – NETHealth partnered with Tyler Morning Telegraph, city of Tyler, KYTX CBS 19, and many other community organizations to come up with creative efforts to encourage people to get healthier. Lighten up East Texas is a shining example and East Texans have lost more than 42,000 pounds in this project. Tyler ISD has had a kids’ marathon challenge for its elementary school students since 2016. Smith County Medical Society has partnered with Fit City Tyler since 2014 with its Walk with a Doc free health education/walk led by physicians for the community.
• Center for Healthy Living – NETHealth worked with the City of Tyler and converted an old fire station into a health center that provides early detection and patient health education for disease like diabetes, obesity, stroke, and heart disease. We are fortunate to have had visionary Tyler city officials who have understood the importance of funding our public health district through the years.
Ben Franklin once said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” To make Tyler a healthier, safer place, we would all do well to take his words to heart.
Li-Yu Mitchell, MD, is a mother of three, a family physician and wound care specialist, president of the Smith County Medical Society, a board member of NETPHD, and delegate for the Rose Chapter of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians.