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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

Increase In Telehealth Leaves Many Black Milwaukeeans Without Care

Andrey Popov
As coronavirus has forced more health care providers to use digital health tools, many Black Milwaukeeans are being left unable to access care.

The coronavirus continues to highlight disparities in health outcomes among marginalized groups. In this time of social distancing, telehealth or online video appointments have kept many people connected with doctors and therapists.

But a Milwaukee provider discovered that many of its Black clients didn’t have the technology for those appointments, creating another barrier to health services.

Saint A is an organization that addresses the impact of trauma, prevents adversity, and promotes resilience for people through their care. The coronavirus shut down in-person care at Saint A, so staff prepared to move services online, offering telehealth services such as therapy, crisis stabilization, and parental coaching to clients. But CEO Ann Leinfelder Grove says along the way, Saint A became aware of a digital divide.

“We saw that of the 5,000 folks in our care, the folks that had limitations with technology, by and large, were Black and brown people, and kids and adults who didn’t have the tools to engage with us,” says Grove.

U.S. census data shows that about 27% of people in Milwaukee don't have internet in their households. Twelve percent of Black people in the city don’t have computers at home, and about 10% have computers but no internet.

“The majority, I believe 60-plus percent of the people we serve in our mental health clinic are African American and 65% of the people in our care are kids, little and up to age 17,” she says.

Leinfelder Grove says the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation presented Saint A with a way to address that divide. One of the foundation’s representatives reached out, at the direction of Oprah, asking what Saint A needed. Staff described the digital divide and eventually received a grant to provide tablets and internet service to 158 families that get services from Saint A.

Serina Gatlin, a senior at Morris Marshall High School, was one of the recipients.

“I like the tablet, it’s good,” she says.

Gatlin says she only had a cell phone to rely on, and the tablet is easier to use. While she prefers her Saint A team meetings in person, she says she likes being able to video chat with her coordinators.

Amari Carrington, lead care coordinator, distributed tablets to Gatlin and several other families. She says she sees the impact the technology has had on families, including those who are using the tablets not just for video visits with Saint A.

Carrington says for one student, the device came right on time as the virtual school year was ending.

“So, now here it is summer, when school ended they were behind academically, and this device actually helped her with her having that Wi-Fi and device she was able to download academic apps, and they were actually able to excel and improve their reading and academics,” says Carrington.

While the grant from the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation benefitted dozens of local families, the digital divide still exists for many others.

Dr. Julie Schuller is the president and CEO of 16th Street Community Health Centersin Milwaukee. She says one of its main goals is to create access to health care for those who don’t have it.

“It’s our mission to make sure everybody has access to quality health care and so that transforms our mission to making sure that everyone has access to digital quality health care if that’s the way that we’re all going,” says Schuller.  

Schuller says the staff of 16th Street Community Health Centers had about five years of telehealth experience before the COVID-19 pandemic, with a small portion of mental health services being offered online. But since the coronavirus, Schuller says the vast majority of 16th Street’s services are offered via telehealth and for some who have trouble accessing the technology, visits have been conducted by phone.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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