Racial Inequality is a Public Health Crisis in Wisconsin

June 16, 2020 2:29 PM | Sally Winkelman (Administrator)

WACEP President’s Message, June 2020
Ryan Thompson, MD, FACEP

Emergency Medicine is uniquely situated in the House of Medicine to bear witness to the failures of our society. We are there for people in their darkest hours and as a result we see the more overt societal problems – violence, child abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual assault, and suicide. However, it is sometimes easy for us to overlook some of society’s more insidious ills.

Wisconsin has a long history of racial inequality. Our communities of color were confined to certain neighborhoods in our cities for large swaths of our state’s history – a practice known as redlining. The resultant deficiencies in housing, healthcare, education, and job opportunities remain even today. The education gap between black and white children in Wisconsin is the worst in the nation. Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarceration of black men in the nation. White people in Wisconsin make 37% more money than black people doing similar jobs. There is a 48% gap between black and white home ownership.

This housing, education, and income inequality has led to disparities in health, as well. Black infants in our state have a rate of mortality that is nearly 3 times that of other races. Rates of obesity, asthma, hypertension, lower extremity amputation from diabetes, arthritis, and hyperlipidemia are all significantly higher among African Americans. Shockingly, the rate of end-stage renal disease from diabetes is nearly 5 times that of white people.

As physicians, we are obligated to work toward better health for all of our patients. It can sometimes be difficult to see what we can do to be helpful- after all, we try to do our best for each and every patient in the ED. But there are things we can do, both big and small, to make a difference: Listen to your patients. Advocate for additional social work resources in your department. Help your patients get registered to vote. Support organizations that buoy underserved communities.  Make sure your department is attempting to hire people of color at all levels. Double check that your patient can afford their prescriptions. Mentor students of color. Recognize your own biases so that you can start to work against them.

We are at a unique moment both in Wisconsin and our nation as a whole. Emergency Physicians should take this opportunity to improve the lives of our patients and the health of our communities. The time for action is now.