Systemic Racism Plagues Healthcare in Wisconsin. The Results Are Deadly for Black Patients
More than 1,000 physicians and health-care workers attended the White Coats for Black Lives rally in Madison in June. Numerous speakers acknowledged it is long overdue for systemic racism to be addressed as a public health crisis. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Advocate Aurora calls it unconscionable, joins a growing trend of recognizing historic injustices and poor health outcomes.

Advocate Aurora Health, one of the largest healthcare providers in Wisconsin, on Monday declared racism a public health crisis, joining a growing number of organizations and governmental bodies that have recognized the devastating effects of systemic racism on health.

The Milwaukee-based healthcare system said in a press release it is one of 39 healthcare providers in the nationwide Healthcare Anchor Network to make the declaration. The announcement comes a little more than a year after the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County became two of the first places to formally call racism a public health crisis, and almost four months after Gov. Tony Evers made the same declaration in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.

Systemic racism has played a massive role in diminishing health outcomes for people of color through those communities’ historic lack of access to adequate housing, education, and employment, according to the American Public Health Association. And perhaps nowhere is that more pronounced than Wisconsin, which is frequently ranked among the worst places for Black people to live in the United States due to highly disparate outcomes in everything from homeownership to incarceration rates.

“We acknowledge the unconscionable toll racism has exacted on communities of color, from increased joblessness and higher rates of preventable disease to lower life expectancy, and we commit to taking specific actions to ameliorate this injustice,” Aurora said in a statement.

Aurora said it will hire more diverse staff, including for leadership positions, invest in businesses owned by people of color, and try to fight health disparities across its network. The nonprofit health system has 15 hospitals, over 150 clinics, and 70 pharmacies in eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois, according to Aurora’s website.

“As the largest health care provider in Wisconsin, we must do better,” said Cristy Garcia-Thomas, Aurora’s chief external affairs officer, in a statement. “By relying on our core values of excellence, compassion, and respect, we pledge to build more just and inclusive communities in which everyone has the opportunity to live well.”

One of the most telling ways systemic racism affects health care in Wisconsin is the state’s Black infant mortality rate. The rate, 14.28 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, is the worst in the nation. Much of the blame for that can be put on Black mothers’ so-called allostatic load, or the combined stress of various factors of systemic racism, which has negative effects on pregnancies.

In Milwaukee, the city with the largest population of Black people in the state, the coronavirus pandemic is also a major indicator. Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting people of color, and Milwaukee’s Black population became a national focus. Despite only making up 27% of the county’s population, Milwaukee’s Black community has suffered 36% of the deaths from the pandemic, according to local health data.

Aurora Medical Center in Kenosha. (Photo via Advocate Aurora Health)

However, the pandemic has significantly slowed its growth in Milwaukee’s Black neighborhoods. Now Milwaukee County’s Latino population is taking the brunt of the pandemic, according to local health data. Latinos make up 30% of the COVID-19 cases in Milwaukee County but just 15% of the population, though they account for 15% of the county’s deaths, a number proportional to their population share.

Statewide, 9% of the coronavirus cases and 18% of the deaths in Wisconsin have affected Black people, according to the Department of Health Services. That’s despite Black people only accounting for 6.7% of the state’s population. DHS does not track the virus’ caseload among Latinos.