What have the last six months taught us?

The last six months have not been filled with a great deal of optimism. COVID-19, the death of George Floyd and our own compiled stressors have created an unfortunate imprint on the American psyche. This has also been a time for health care to adapt and change in an unprecedented way to save lives. However, these events are intrinsically tied because it all points back to the fact that racism remains a public health issue.

This train of thought is not “anti” anyone. It is a recognition that we have lifted some up and left some behind in our societal progress. The story is told in our data.

Wisconsin ranks No. 50 for black infant mortality. Our rate for cancer and heart disease mortality is 50% higher for black individuals than their white counterparts. COVID-19 highlighted this divide: Mortality in Wisconsin for black individuals was five times higher than it was for their white counterparts.

These conditions do not derive purely from the melanin in someone’s skin but rather the quality and access to care that is received by people of color in our state.

A recent assessment of local health needs echoed that data. Numerous individuals stated racism and cultural barriers impeded their care.

I have heard horrific anecdotes in our community that are costly to the health care system and could potentially be deadly for the patient. I have heard stories of insured black individuals being held up from immediate, necessary care because “the nurses thought the patient needed to fill out a charitable care application” first. I heard of one individual who had his bipolar disorder diagnosed as schizophrenia (a common misdiagnosis in many black men), which delayed years of proper treatment.

When it comes down to it, almost all of us in Rock County want the same thing. No matter our race, we want to be able to work hard, raise our kids and provide for our families. We all want vibrant communities and are willing to collectively problem-solve to reach that end goal. But this will not happen if we know that some racial/ethnic groups are left behind. We must work toward healing wounds that have long gone untreated.

We can cure the ills of racism, but it requires that we look at our internal biases that inform our interactions with others. In medicine, we know healing can sometimes be a painful process, and it often requires patience. However, we should take the time to read about the historical or collective trauma of the black community, understand microaggressions and not actively avoid topics of race just because they might make us uncomfortable.

A mask of empathy is no longer an option in preventing the spread of an ill like racism. Proactive action is required.

If we risk letting the access and quality of health care slide for a group of individuals, who is to say it will not happen to one of us down the road.

Ian Hedges is the chief executive officer for HealthNet of Rock County, a local free and charitable clinic.