Patricia Téllez-Girón, MD (PG ‘00), remembers her childhood in Mexico as being filled with sports, art, dance, and nurturing family members who supported her desire to learn and serve her community. Their help and guidance gave her the chance to attend medical school, and she now dedicates her career to giving others a chance to live their best lives and achieve their goals.

Patricia Téllez-Girón, MD

Patricia Téllez-Girón, MD

In recognition of her efforts to open pathways for younger generations of Mexicans, in fall 2023, she received Mexico’s Ohtli Award, the highest honor for a Mexican leader living outside of that country. It highlights a career dedicated to providing care, education, and advocacy for underserved populations while mentoring and teaching minority and non-minority students.

In her 27 years with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s (SMPH) Department of Family Medicine and Community Health—first as a resident and now as an associate professor—Téllez-Girón has become the voice for not only the Latine community in the Madison area but other marginalized groups fighting for for equitable care and services. She also is dedicated to teaching by drawing from the challenges she faced as an immigrant starting over in the United States.

A New Beginning

The youngest of three siblings raised in Mexico City, Téllez-Girón saw the sacrifices her parents made to send their children to school, yet her parents always modeled kindness and compassion for others. Her mother worked and attended school while caring for the children, and her father, a lawyer, always found a way to help those in need. According to Téllez-Girón, attending medical school never felt like a choice, it was a calling.

“From an early age, I saw the importance of hard work and service, and I always felt inspired to help others,” she explains.

While she was earning her medical degree at the National University of Mexico, her family moved to the United States, and Téllez-Girón soon followed. The move was difficult. She faced the challenges of learning a new language; validating her degree and herself in society; learning new customs; and experiencing discrimination and racism. She found her footing by leaning on family and joining the nationally touring

Mexican Folkloric Dance Company, which helped her gain a sense of belonging. It was a challenging time that ultimately shaped her career path.

“The experience gave me an even deeper understanding of the barriers that existed in underserved communities in the United States,” notes Téllez-Girón. “It laid the foundation for my clinical and community work with not only the Latine community but with other underserved populations in need of a voice.”

Change Through Collaboration and Trust

Through her work with colleagues and communities to provide direct services, advocacy, and education to Latine people in need, Téllez-Girón found herself mentoring minority students to be the advocates, teachers, and health care providers of the future. She points out that underserved populations need direct services but also advocacy, and both tasks would be better accomplished with more people contributing.

“Ideally, we should have more minority health care providers giving the best, culturally appropriate care available, including language. In the meantime, we must educate others about the importance of equity and diversity as we start the process of preparing more minority providers,” she says.

Téllez-Girón’s career at the SMPH and UW Health is devoted to these two approaches, and her efforts are paying off. Today, her base clinic — the Access Community Health Centers Wingra Family Medical Center — has a social worker and several providers, receptionists, nurses, and behavioral health consultants who are bilingual. Téllez-Girón believes that diversifying the clinic’s personnel means better care and better health outcomes for patients.

DFMCH Chair David Rakel, MD, calls Téllez-Girón the ideal community engaged physician leader.

“The trust she has developed with our Latine communities and our Latine learners has had a tremendously positive impact,” shares Rakel. “Her kind smile, warm heart, and medical expertise has provided patients with the confidence to make healthier choices and for learners to pursue a challenging career to become physicians. Her influence will persist for generations.”

Téllez-Girón’s colleagues note that her willingness to be a collaborative partner is one reason she has gained the trust of the communities she serves. Her work with groups like the Latino Health Council has led to programs including the Latine Health Fair, an event that for 30 years has offered opportunities for uninsured people to receive preventive screening tests and services. The fair is a resource for people of all ages and gender identities, and the attendance has increased from less than 30 participants to nearly 150. She also started the first monthly radio health education program on Madison’s Spanish-language radio station, La Movida. The program educates the Latine community about health issues and addresses access-to-care issues as it gives the audience information about community resources. It has been an important source of information for the past 20 years. Now available online, the program reaches up to 50,000 listeners at any given time.

“The Spanish broadcast program was invaluable during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, as I was able to give accurate information to our Spanish-speaking community with the help of a panel of experts. Our efforts helped get more than 56 percent of Madison’s Latine population vaccinated by July 2021. The statewide average in the Latine population at that time was 37 percent,” adds Téllez-Girón.

Other collaborations include her work with the SMPH. She was the faculty advisor and first course director for the Health Care and Diverse Communities course launched in 2004, and she continues to serve as a guest speaker. She currently serves on the SMPH Non-Resident Recruitment Committee and as a mentor for underrepresented minority students through the Building Equitable Access to Mentorship (BEAM) Program. Though she has been a part of BEAM since 2018, Téllez-Girón has mentored more than 60 students throughout her time at UW–Madison. She proudly shares that many of the students she has mentored, including three of the Latine students, have been accepted to medical school; several are now completing residencies, and others have begun practicing medicine.

She also serves as the faculty leader for the Enhancing Representation to Improve Our Communities Health (EnRICH) Program in the DFMCH. Building on ideas from the BEAM Program, EnRICH was created to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who choose to enter primary care. Téllez-Girón is hopeful these programs and other services will give underserved community members the type of support she received from family members and colleagues when she was in a new country as a minority woman.

Family in Her Corner

The strong family that supported her through medical school includes relatives who continue to be her biggest cheerleaders. Though her father passed away, her mother lives with Téllez-Girón, her husband, and their two sons in Madison. Living nearby are her sister and brother, a respected community leader and an engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration through a local company, respectively.

These family members often travel back to Mexico to visit their large extended family. “I feel blessed to have such a close, supportive family, and I hope I bring that same feeling of belonging and care to the communities I serve,” she says.

Originally published in UW SMPH Quarterly (PDF)

Published: April 2024