UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign to promote women's health access and education. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

If you browse through the required school curriculum in Texas, you might be surprised to find that sex ed doesn't quite make the cut. Sex education is optional in the Lone Star State and state law requires schools to stress abstinence when choosing to teach the subject, which can make understanding birth control even more confusing for both teens and adult women.

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign as a way to empower women with information on birth control and ensure access to contraceptive care regardless of age, race, relationship status or socioeconomic status. One click to the Own Every Piece website and you'll be greeted by the smiles of diverse women, along with videos of their birth control journey and educational information on various birth control options.

"You feel like the campaign is talking to you as a friend, not talking down to you as an authority or in any type of shaming way," says Kimberly A. Baker, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. One of her favorite areas of the website is the "Find a Clinic" page, connecting teens and adult women to nearby clinics, because "one of the biggest complaints from women is that they didn't know where to go," says Baker.

The website and social media platforms preach of body-positivity, empowerment, and knowledge. Prompts from a "true or false"-style quiz debunk myths from birth control weight gain to proper condom use on the home page. In the name of inclusivity, women can even upload their own birth control story to share with Own Every Piece's audience.

Baker and her team got their start in school districts developing programs for middle and high schoolers while also training teachers on how to discuss birth control openly. After working in over 20 school districts with the goal of preventing teen pregnancy through education, Baker identified a new problem: the significant lack of access to health care within the Houston community.

"We wanted to figure out what the major gaps were," Baker says. "What we found, of course, was how expensive birth control was — especially with some of the most effective methods."

Kimberly A. Baker is assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

Let's crunch some numbers. When interpreting the price of contraceptives, the type of birth control and access to health care can impact how much women pay out-of-pocket. According to Baker, the standard pill can cost anywhere from $10 to $30 a month while implanting long-acting reversible contraceptives like the IUD can cost upwards of $600 to $700. These calculations don't factor in the cost of a doctor's appointment, the removal of a device like the IUD, or even the average $4,500 it costs to give birth if you choose to have a child in the U.S.

After noticing gaps in who could pay for service, Baker and her team realized that some community centers didn't have the funds to have long-acting contraceptive on hand.

"We knew if we partnered with health clinics and health centers to help train them to better serve folks that they weren't serving well, and to give them more funds to buy methods that women couldn't probably afford...we would be filling that gap," she says.

Creating comfort and trust among women looking for contraceptives was another key intention in the campaign's launch.

"When [women] enter a community health clinic, they should feel confident to ask questions and to know that they're receiving all the accurate information they should be getting so they can make the best decision for them," says Baker.

Baker likes to think of the Own Every Piece project as a "more celebratory campaign around birth control that we hadn't seen before," she says. "There are so many stereotypes around sexuality and reproduction that are very shame-based," says Baker, particularly for "Latinx and Black women."

She acknowledges how epithetical birth control messaging that suggests women shouldn't "have more kids" or implies "pregnancy is a bad thing" frames reproductive health in a negative way. "We wanted a campaign that let women know that they own their body. They make decisions about their body, and birth control is a piece of that," she says.

The purpose of providing access took on a new meaning when the coronavirus hit. Since Own Every Piece began as a digital campaign targeted to Houston women ages 18 to 30, the initiative had a head start in the race to move online.

"We saw an opportunity to figure out how we can tell our community health centers to get into the telecontraception space because we've already established trust virtually through our campaign," explains Baker.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas held the title of the state with the most uninsured residents in the U.S. In a state with 2.9 million unemployment claims since March, access to affordable birth control has never been more essential for women.

"From women who lost their insurance due to losing their job because of COVID-19, this has been a godsend," says Baker.

Telemedicine has also added convenience for women who didn't have the time to check out a clinic in-person before the pandemic.

While COVID-19's strains on American health care continue to dominate headlines, birth control has also managed to make national news. On July 8, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can opt-out of birth control coverage—a decision that could result in an estimated 126,000 women losing contraceptive coverage from their employers, according to the New York Times.

The 7-to-2 Supreme Court decision is the latest in a seven-year-long litigation over religious objections to birth control. Outside of pregnancy prevention, birth control helps women cope with premenstrual dysmorphic disorder, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, acne, and a number of other issues.

"We have to work harder to have inclusive messaging around [birth control usage], because birth control isn't just about pregnancy prevention," explains Baker. "People use birth control for a number of needs. When you message it just around pregnancy prevention, people start to feel like something is wrong with being pregnant, and that's not what we set out to do."

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Houston SaaS startup raises $10M to keep up with customer growth

money moves

A Houston software company has announced its latest funding.

Liongard, an IT software provider, has raised an additional $10 million led by Updata Partners with contribution from TDF Ventures — both existing investors in the company. The funding, according to a news release, will go toward providing the best customer service for Liongard's growing customer base.

The technology is providing managed service providers, or MSPs, improved visibility across the IT stack and an optimized user experience.

“Since working with our first MSP partners, we’ve seen time and again the power of visibility into IT data, reducing the time they spend researching customer issues and allowing them to respond faster than their peers,” says Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard, in the release. “This investment enables us to continue to achieve our vision of delivering visibility into each element of the IT stack.”

The company has about 2,000 partners in support of more than 60,000 end customers. And has been recognized as a top employer by Forbes and Inc. magazine earlier this year.

“We are excited to deepen our commitment with Liongard,“ says Carter Griffin, general partner at Updata, in the release. “With its leading data platform for MSPs we expect continued fast-paced growth.”

Liongard's last funding round was in May of 2020 and was a $17 million series B round. Both Updata Partners and TDF ventures were involved in that round. The company's total funding now sits at over $30 million.

Rice University rises to No. 1 spot in new ranking of best college investments

money moves

By one measure, earning a degree at Rice University is the smartest move in the Lone Star State.

In its eighth annual ranking of colleges and university that give students the best return on their educational investment, personal finance website SmartAsset places Rice at No. 1 in Texas and No. 10 in the U.S. It’s the only Texas school to break into the national top 10.

To determine the best-value colleges and universities in each state, SmartAsset crunched data in these categories: scholarships and grants, starting salary for new graduates, tuition, living costs, and retention rate.

While the tuition ($47,350) and student living costs ($17,800) at Rice are the highest among the top 10 Texas schools on the list, the average amount of scholarships and grants ($43,615), average starting salary ($77,900), and retention rate (97 percent) also are among the highest.

According to Rice, tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, books, and personal expenses for the 2022-23 academic year add up to $74,110. That figure, which excludes financial aid, applies to a full-time, degree-seeking student living on campus.

“Rice University is consistently ranked as a best value in higher education and is one of America’s leading teaching and research universities,” the school’s Office of Financial Aid says. “By attending Rice, you will not only receive a superior education at a reasonable cost, you also will benefit from having a Rice degree long after graduation.”

Three other schools in or near the Houston metro area appear on SmartAsset’s list of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck schools in Texas:

  • Prairie View A&M University, No. 4. The university posted the lowest retention rate (74 percent) among the 10 schools. The remaining figures sit roughly in the middle of the pack.
  • University of Houston, No. 5. The university’s tuition ($8,913) was the lowest in the top 10, as was the average amount of scholarships and grants ($6,544).
  • Texas A&M University-College Station, No. 6. The university’s living costs are the second highest among the top 10 ($17,636), while its average starting salary for new grads lands at No. 3 ($64,400).

Other schools in the state’s top 10 are:

  • University of Texas at Austin, No. 2.
  • University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson), No. 3.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, No. 7.
  • LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 8.
  • University of North Texas in Denton, No. 9.
  • Texas State University in San Marcos, No. 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

guest column

Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.