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Digging Deeper: Racial healthcare disparities highlighted by Coronavirus

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LA CROSSE, Wis (WXOW) - While Coronavirus does not discriminate, some claim that healthcare often does. There's a history of racist policies and practices in the health care system, and now local medical professionals are pushing for change.

Doctors are sworn to “do no harm,” but apparently not all patients are being treated equally.

"I think it's very saddening that I go to the hospital and that I have people that are my colleagues even discriminating against and making me or trying to make me feel bad about being a minority," said Dr. Patricia Tellez-Giron, M.D. at UW Health.

Dr. Tellez-Giron, a physician at UW-Health, knows all too well the discrimination that can take place in the hospital room.

"It makes a difference when you are working with people who you think are college-educated and even then they discriminate against you. Patients that do not perceive you as a qualified person just because you're from a different place and you have an accent," Dr. Tellez-Giron.

The CDC's most recent report shows Black people make up 22 percent of Coronavirus cases in the U.S. Latinx people 33 percent. In Wisconsin the numbers equally grim.

"The disparity in Wisconsin is wide-6 percent of the state of representation and 26 percent of the deaths. So what the pandemic is doing is highlighting the fractures we know exist," said Dr. Caroline Wilker, Chair of Diversity & Inclusion, Mayo Clinic Health System.

Doctors at Mayo point to systemic racism and discrimination as one reason minority communities are more vulnerable to a range of health concerns including coronavirus.

"Disparities in cancer diagnosis, outcomes, delayed diagnosis of cancers in particularly in black women, and Hispanic and Latinx populations," Dr. Abigail Stockham, Radiation Oncologist, Mayo Clinic Health System.

The history of medicine is plagued with examples of racism, both directly and indirectly.

"From the way slaves were used in medical testing unwillingly, to the government's Tuskegee experiment, to the lack of inclusion of research to address major medical problems, to the lack of representation,"

Speaking of lack of representation, according to the CDC, less than 6 percent of U.S. doctors are Latinx. Dr. Tellez among them.

"It is difficult as a minority to be in a place where I am the only one, and I am the only one most of the time advocating for minority communities. Not only Latinx but every minority community that we serve," said Dr. Wilker.

Dr. Tellez-Giron said she feels a responsibility to advocate for patients of color.

"One we get to the hospital we need to have people that are ready to work with us, language, culture, discrimination wise. So we need a lot of training. Cause by the time we have enough professionals that are able to fulfill the needs of the community, we need the community at large to be ready to work with us."said Dr. Tellez-Giron.

One thing that all of the doctors I spoke with agree on, is that larger systemic issues of racism must be addressed before it can be addressed fully within the health care system.

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Candace Price

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