Dr. Rhonda Mattox Sees Mental Health ‘Tsunami’ In Rural America

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Dr. Rhonda Mattox was named president of Arkansas Medical, Dental & Pharmaceutical Association in June. She is a board-certified physician, an integrative behavioral health psychiatrist and a consultant to primary care providers. Previously she was an associate professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and an instructor at UCLA.

Mattox graduated from Hendrix College in Conway and got her medical degree from UAMS. She also has trained at the National Institute of Mental Health and through the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program.

The Arkansas Medical, Dental & Pharmaceutical Association is the state’s oldest medical association of Black doctors.

We keep hearing about a looming mental health crisis in the country. How is this playing out in Arkansas?

It has already hit us like a tsunami, especially in remote areas. There’s an unparalleled influx of first-time mental health consumers juxtaposed with a dearth of mental health professionals. While clinicians are making a workforce exodus, the demand for behavioral health has increased exponentially. We need telehealth infrastructure with broadband access and cybersecurity measures to reach people where they are. We also need telehealth services covered by insurers post-pandemic.

What do you think of the prospect of Arkansas having its first dental school?

It’s exciting and long overdue. Many have not connected the dots in the relationship between oral health and health. That’s costing us. 

What are the top concerns for your members?

First is our patients’ safety and access to quality health care throughout our rural state. Next, the maldistribution of health care warrants an urgent bridging of the digital divide. Affordable broadband coverage throughout the state ensures that an experienced workforce is accessible. Staffing is also an issue. There aren’t enough of anything — pharmacists, technicians, nurses, doctors, dentists or dental hygienists — to meet the needs now. COVID worsened that. Patients are standing in line for hours to get medicines. Some pharmacies don’t have pharmacists working weekends. Another concern? The sanctity of the patient-provider relationship is eroding as legislators overreach into health care. Politics is compromising  medicine by introducing the fear of retribution, intimidation or litigation. Reimbursement is also an issue. Coverage of telemedicine services needs to continue so specialty care and mental health care that became accessible via telehealth during the pandemic can remain accessible. 

What can your organization do to encourage more African-Americans to become doctors or take up other health care careers?

AMDPA embodies the sankofa spirit of reaching back and pulling forward students into the health professions. For 129 years our members have been trailblazers working relentlessly toward increasing workforce diversity. In 1900, Blacks comprised 11.6% of the nation’s population and 1.3% of the physician workforce. Fast-forward to 2018, when 12.8% of the total population was Black, yet comprised 5.4% of the U.S. physician workforce, according to a recent UCLA study. These disparities are grounded in decades of structural racism that AMDPA can’t fix. But we can inform and partner. The solutions warrant informed policy changes on numerous levels. That’s why we help policymakers understand that tackling workforce diversity is tackling provider maldistribution and health equity too. Blacks are more likely to practice primary care and serve in rural and underserved areas than whites. Additionally, racially concordant care leads to better communication and better outcomes.

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