Increasing statewide focus on the health of Oklahomans will create a healthier state; however, healthcare legislation alone will not produce a healthy society. Public health is a complex issue with a multitude of interwoven causes and effects, but here are three specific steps toward creating a healthier Oklahoma:
Working with regional hospitals to establish satellite locations to serve rural communities where their local hospitals have been shut down.
Utilizing telemedicine as a mental health resource that can de-escalate episodes without the over-involvement of the police.
Working to eliminate food deserts (areas without access to healthy, affordable eating options).
While creating many issues of its own, COVID-19 also highlighted a multitude of problems that had been present in our healthcare system years before any of us had heard of coronavirus. For years, Oklahoma's legislature resisted expanding Medicaid, resulting in thousands of people in rural areas losing access to local hospitals as the hospitals no longer had the funding to keep their doors open.
During the pandemic, these closures resulted in overcrowded hospitals across the state as people needed care they could not get in their own small towns. Further, hospital closures had already increased the number of unnecessary and costly trips to the emergency room when access to care in rural areas could have saved Oklahomans time and money.
Telemedicine allows patients and clinicians to meet virtually, saving patients time and resources while still providing access to care. Telemedicine is also a valuable tool for treating mental health as it allows us to treat it as a vital component of public wellbeing rather than ignoring the issue altogether. In Stillwater, Grand Lake Mental Health Center has made impressive changes - like equipping police officers with iPads to help people experiencing mental health episodes get in contact with a trained mental health professional. This approach has seen more success for the individuals needing care and less time for police officers to be off patrol. But the network of mental health care providers needs to be widened and supported statewide.
There is a misconception that people with health issues related to their diets are making the choice to eat poorly. But in Oklahoma, 32 of our 77 counties are classified as food deserts, which means they live 10 or more miles away from a grocery store or supermarket and cannot easily or affordably access healthy foods. If we can prioritize preventative care and access to the healthier eating options found in grocery stores, Oklahomans can avoid serious health concerns and reduce the likelihood of heart disease and obesity, which are among the state's most common health-related issues.
With Governor Stitt's recent signing of HB 4327 and the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade, women all over the state are now without the choice to determine what to do in the event of an unplanned pregnancy. To confound this issue, women in rural areas, who have lacked readily accessible healthcare for years, will have difficulty accessing the many appointments that pregnancies entail. Currently, 44 out of 77 counties lack birthing centers or OBGYNs. In fact, our maternal and infant mortality rate ranks worse than some third-world countries as we lose one mother and baby a month. Without proper access to prenatal care, will Oklahoma's ban on abortion result in an increased maternal and infant mortality rate?
Just as new parents take steps to ensure the safety of their pregnancies, the state must also take steps to meet parents where they are at and provide help where help is needed. One such step is to apply for a Medicaid waiver that will ensure new moms have access to care for the first year of their child’s life.
By funding various methods of help in the form of hospital satellite branches, increased telemedicine, mental health centers, and eliminating food deserts, we can divert Oklahomans away from the ER and toward a healthcare system that is readily available and more cost-efficient.