UTEP pharmacy students learn about Presidio medical challenges

PRESIDIO — Three doctorate of pharmacy students from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) are learning about rural healthcare in Texas, and they’re using Presidio as an example. The students — Robert Gutierrez, Alejandro Perez and Amir Rastegari — will be touring in and around Presidio for a week and interacting with the community to better understand the healthcare challenges that remote communities such as Presidio face. The program is part of the university’s study away program, and was organized in collaboration with the Presidio County Medical Clinic. As part of their tour, the students will meet with representatives of healthcare resources across the region, including the Children’s Advocacy Center in Presidio, MHMR, the EMS, and the Big Bend Community Action Center. It’s only been a few days, but already they’ve gleaned some of the issues that have challenged the city and county for years. “I was surprised to learn about the lack of emergency services,” said Rastegari, “or the fact that it’ll take about an hour-and-a-half for the ambulance to go to Alpine.” Emily Christenberry, a clinical assistant who is acting as chaperone of the group, said that even though she grew up in a small Indiana town that is very much like Presidio, it’s startling to see how the vast landscape of West Texas creates an additional obstacle for those seeking medical attention. But Presidio is not unique. In fact, dozens of rural counties across the state must contend with a lack of primary care providers, hospitals and pharmacies, as well as lengthy commutes to healthcare facilities. On Monday afternoon, the cohort discussed some of these challenges over lunch at Presidio’s greasy spoon establishment The Bean, in company with the city’s economic development director Brad Newton. When asked how the issue of access to healthcare might improve, the students pointed to yet another problem: In the state of Texas, pharmacists are not considered healthcare professionals, and as such, are not entitled to loan forgiveness programs while working in underserved areas in the way that doctors are. As a result, there’s less incentive for recent graduates to move to these places. “To work in a rural community, we would get paid less and on top of that, still have to pay off our loans,” said Rastegari. “Right now there’s no economic incentive to move to one of these places,” Christenberry said. “If you had that, I think you would have a lot more people — even myself — that would have a huge incentive to come work in a rural underserved community.” For places like Presidio, a little goes a long way. The city’s pharmacy, a relatively new establishment, has already supplied the city with a badly needed resource. Newton, a Presidio resident for the better part of a decade, is no stranger to the positive impacts of that pharmacy to the town. “I used to have to wait a couple days to get my diabetes supplies and now I can go down and in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes, I have everything that I need,” he said. Though the students might not have economic incentive to return to Presidio once they complete their four years of study, Christenberry said she hopes the program will raise their understanding of the issues that many across Texas face.