By Mrinal Gokhale
It’s hard to be a single parent while going to school. Dr. Sherrea Jones began living this reality at age 16 when she had her son while growing up in Milwaukee’s inner-city neighborhoods.
“I worked a part-time job while attending college and my mother and I faced tremendous financial hardships and home eviction during my undergraduate tenure,” she recalled.
Jones wanted to be a physician since age 8, and after overcoming many hurdles through the years, she is pursuing her M.D. at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) and planning to graduate in 2024. When obtaining her undergraduate degree at UW-Madison and graduate degree at Marquette University, a typical day for Jones started bright and early and ended late.
“My day would begin at 6 a.m., I would take my son to school, head to my class and complete experiments on my “to-do list” for that day,” she said. “In evenings, I would pick my son up from school by 6 p.m., help him with homework and try to have him in the bed by 8 p.m. Once he was asleep, I would study for at least four hours each night.”
Throughout her journey, Jones has learned first-hand the complications that underserved populations face in navigating the healthcare system. She is still deciding what field of medicine she wants to practice, but advocates for more people of color and minorities to pursue careers in healthcare.
Why do you feel it’s important for more people of color to pursue careers in medicine?
When I was a 16 year old pregnant black girl from the inner city, I experienced shame, embarrassment and discouragement when it came to caring for my health because I could not relate to the physician that was caring for me at the time.
Representation of diversity in healthcare, I feel, will serve as one way to decrease some of the health disparities prevalent in our society. For example, many minority populations don’t feel comfortable sharing their healthcare journeys with providers because there is no commonality that serves to connect the doctor and patient.
Building physician-patient relationships is essential to eliminating unconscious biases and judgements that surface when patient care is not driven by a field that reflects the population being served.
What health disparities do you notice to be unique to the Milwaukee community?
It has been reported that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in our nation. Milwaukee is the largest city in Wisconsin and contains the poorest zip code in the state, 53206. Socioeconomic status is one of the social determinants of health. There are several food deserts located throughout the city and remote access to healthcare in numerous communities is limited.
The majority of the immediate food access in the most impoverished communities in Milwaukee are supplied by convenient stores, gas stations and fast food chains. In communities like this, there is the highest incidence of obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Socioeconomic status is a major driving force, in the Milwaukee community, that determines quality of life, education, access to food and healthcare.
Although these concerns are unique to the city of Milwaukee, this should be recognized and approached as a state issue. The state of Wisconsin can only be as healthy as its largest city.
When did you realize the healthcare disparities that underserved populations endure?
My initial realization and experience was in 2004 when my son and I were enrolled in Badger Care. I called approximately 15 physicians on the provider list and the first question I was asked was “Is your insurance private or state provided?” I had to call around numerous times because the listed providers were no longer accepting patients covered by state insurance. This was very frustrating, troubling and discouraging. I realized, firsthand, that socioeconomic status plays a direct role in whether you can receive healthcare and how difficult it can be to access healthcare.
How did you decide what field of medicine you wanted to pursue?
I am still undecided about what career I want to pursue. I do, however, have five top interests at the moment that I have been inspired to pursue at different time points in my life. They are, in no specific order, Maternal and Fetal Medicine, Anesthesiology, Radiology, Orthopedic Surgery and Trauma Surgery. My ultimate goal, in whatever field I choose, is to diagnose, treat and follow-up with patient care. My desire is to have a hands-on career that also allows me to educate patients about their health and how to improve their overall healthcare moving forward.