Shiva Bidar-Sielaff aims to dismantle inequities in health care

Equity and health care are bound together.
Shiva Bidar-Sielaff
Photo by Marla Bergh; Styling by Kayla Hietpas

I grew up as an immigrant in Spain.

I knew firsthand what it felt like to be singled out as different. To not know a language. To be “othered.” From a young age, I understood what it meant to be marginalized and how that inequity can affect every aspect of one’s life. These experiences made me passionate about equity and about making sure everyone has access to everything they need, no matter who they are or where they come from.

Equity and health care are bound together. Here in Wisconsin, we see the devastating consequences of health inequities. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, “Black and Hispanic populations are overrepresented among COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Compared to white Wisconsinites, Hispanic or Latinx Wisconsinites have 2.2 times greater case rates, and Black Wisconsinites have 2.8 times greater hospitalization rates and 2.0 times greater death rates.”

We know that systemic racism and both conscious and unconscious bias play a role in how, where and when people of color receive health care. But it is not enough to be aware of this data. As a leader in a health care organization, I feel deeply responsible for the health outcomes of the people in our community. And I know how much work it can and will take to end racism and inequity in health care.

My work in diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, began in earnest in 2016. I became the chief diversity officer at UW Health, and we began reflecting more intentionally on our role in addressing racism within ourselves, our health care system and our community. This reflection led me to gather support from senior leaders to weave equity into business decision-making because DEI work is critical to positive health outcomes, quality care and the success of an organization.

As executives became more engaged in these efforts at UW Health, our work began to grow. We were more connected within the organization, but we didn’t have the staff or resources yet to really carry out a strategic, anti-racism plan. This year, our team grew with our ambitions and I became vice president.

While these are good signs of progress, they are not victories unless they lead to systemic change. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes when it comes to DEI, and it constantly evolves. We need to use our new bandwidth to support every staff member and patient, and there are several ways to do that.

We’re building tools to improve equity in all our decision-making and operational processes. We are expanding training and professional development programs for employees to better understand and eliminate inequitable care, health disparities and racism. We are also working hard to support our providers and staff of color.

I see opportunities for greater equity everywhere. We can include more businesses owned by people of color in our supply chain. We can improve our recruitment — and retention — of employees of color. Our investments should be made with equity in mind. As a major employer and the top-rated hospital system in Wisconsin, it is our responsibility to support health-related policies that address systemic racism.

You might ask, ‘How do you know you’re done?’ I’m honestly not sure if we’ll ever be done. The work is ultimately dismantling historic systems built on a foundation of racism and rebuilding a system based on justice, equity and opportunity. The work is dense and ongoing, and it takes everyone.

The journey goes on. It is ongoing self-reflection. It is ongoing accountability to our staff, to our patients
and to our partners in the community. The work might look very different in five more years, just as it looks different from when I first became chief diversity officer in 2016. We are building the foundation for it to continue to grow.

We need to be self-aware and to continue to listen. We can celebrate milestones and victories while understanding that this work takes continued partnership and
a lot of humility.

Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, a guest columnist, is UW Health’s vice president and chief diversity officer.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"