Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson On The Current State of Health

Dr. Joe Thompson is responsible for developing health policy, research activities and programs that promote better health and health care in Arkansas.

Besides serving as surgeon general, Joe Thompson is also director of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, professor of medicine and public health at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and a general pediatrician.

Thompson earned his medical degree from UAMS and a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Q: What can Arkansans do to be healthier?

A: First, we all need to recognize our personal responsibility for doing what we can to stay healthy and not needing health care. But inevitably we will need health care, and we need a system that both delivers high-quality care and is affordable for all. Currently, one of every four working-age Arkansans does not have health insurance. At the same time, more than 50 percent of Arkansas adults are living with at least one chronic disease like cancer, diabetes or heart disease. As a result, more than 16 percent of Arkansans have reported that they could not see a doctor due to cost.

Is Obamacare just a step on the road toward a single-payer system?

It does expand government’s role by subsidizing low-income workers to buy private insurance and giving states the opportunity to use federal funds to help support the poor through Medicaid, but its intent is not for a single-payer system. While improving insurance coverage and access to care will save an estimated 2,300 lives per year and have economic benefits for our state, the act does fall short on containing the cost of health care throughout the system. Luckily, we started the Payment Improvement Initiative before the ACA, and with businesses and insurance companies we are on the way to creating a more efficient and affordable health care system. We need to take advantage of what is offered through the federal health care law and at the same time work to minimize the risks it contains.

What is your vision for the Payment Improvement Initiative?

We are replacing a system in which financial incentives lead to visits and procedures with one that centers on the patients’ needs, eliminates waste and achieves higher quality. For example, one in four seniors hospitalized for congestive heart failure is readmitted within 30 days. When the providers reach out to help provide appropriate follow-up care after discharge, the likelihood of such hospital readmissions can be dramatically reduced.

Has gun violence become a public health issue, especially with regards to mental health?

I think we need to take a look at the root causes of gun violence and develop evidence-based solutions much in the way we address other preventable threats to public health like tobacco and obesity. We have made progress in that mental health services are now being covered in most health insurance policies, but that is just a start.

How long can the country continue with the current health care model?

Our health care system is at a tipping point brought on by an unhealthy population and rising health care costs. Unless we improve the health of our citizens and create more cost efficiency within the health care system, we are facing a tsunami of medical treatment needs that we simply won’t be able to afford. The good news is that people recognize the problems. We are fortunate here in Arkansas that policymakers and many others are willing to work together on effective solutions. We are working toward a comprehensive rebuilding of our health care system that could well be a model for the nation.