Three ways the pharmaceutical industry can positively impact health equity

Guest Contributor
Guest Contributor September 1, 2020

Three ways the pharmaceutical industry can positively impact health equity.

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Conversations and healthy debate about issues facing our industry and the health care system are critical to addressing some of today’s challenges and opportunities. The Catalyst welcomes guest contributors, including patients, stakeholders, innovators and others, to share their perspectives and point of view. Today, we are pleased to welcome  a guest post from Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton, Vice-President, Global Clinical Development, Nephrology, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Development & Commercialization, Inc. who is dedicated to creating healthier communities globally through drug development, patient advocacy and people engagement / empowerment

As a physician scientist, I have dedicated my life’s work to creating healthier communities globally through drug development, advocacy, empowerment and engagement. Born in a rural, segregated Arkansas town of 18,000 people, many lived below the poverty line — both then and now — regardless of race. I witnessed the impact that social determinants (i.e. where people are born, live, go to school, work) can have on the health of communities. Many in my community and family suffered from chronic diseases and I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to make a difference in their lives.

Now as a pharmaceutical executive with significant experience leading clinical trial development for multiple medicines, I can combine my leadership in research and development with my clinical acumen to positively impact the lives of patients and communities who suffer with chronic diseases. But in the wake of this year’s racial and health horrors, I have to ask myself: is my leadership enough?

After leading an organization through the first half of 2020 during both the COVID-19 pandemic and horrific killings of Black Americans (Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd), I believe that the pharmaceutical industry can and needs to do more to advance the health of patients and make a positive impact on people’s lives.

Particularly, access to clinical trials and to approved medicines are two critical ways the pharmaceutical industry can positively impact the health of patients and communities. Racial disparities are well documented for both clinical trials and access to treatments. There is an opportunity today for the pharmaceutical industry to take bold action to rectify these inequities.

What would it take for the pharmaceutical industry to improve the care for the patients who we serve, particularly through the medicines we develop? There is a three-pronged approach that reflects my personal opinion and values of community, service and health and wellness. 

  1. Ensure that there is appropriate representation. The pharmaceutical industry is one of many dealing with a lack of representation within their companies, particularly in higher levels where decisions are made. It is well documented that companies with greater representation in gender and racial diversity perform better than those with lower representation. Inclusion of Black, Latinx and other diverse leaders in all areas of business, from the discovery labs to approved medicines, is critical. Importantly, external scientific and strategic advisors, investigators and vendors should also be diverse and included throughout the medicine development pipeline. By developing products with the lens of diversity, we are better suited to welcome all populations to benefit from the medicines and treatments that the industry provides.

  2. Understand how to meet the needs of underserved patients. Having a diverse workforce can also offer insights on how to engage with communities who are diverse. Pharmaceutical companies — through diverse workforce, advisors, investigators and vendors — can bring those insights and support for communities to educate, drive trust and listen to the concerns of Black, Latinx and other diverse communities. We need to follow the lead of other industries who connect with individuals in the communities they serve to better understand how their products work, how they are used, how they can be improved and how they can better meet the needs of their target audience. Representatives within the pharmaceutical industry have the responsibility to recognize this and help ensure that we are all working together to deliver the best medicines and care to all people.

  3. Make clinical trials more equitable. Having diverse populations in clinical trials is critical as it provides the ability to help address inequities in health and understand the impact of medication on diverse populations. However, the needle has not moved much in this area in decades. Within the U.S., there are centuries of abuse, inappropriate medical care and other blatantly racist acts that have impacted the relationship between medical researchers and communities of color. Terrible historical events, such as Tuskegee, have created aversions for people of color to enroll into modern clinical trials. We consistently see underrepresentation of minorities in clinical trials, even in those trials where people of color bear a higher burden of disease, such as particular cardiovascular conditions. To rectify this inequity, a foundation of trust must be built with populations of color. This can be done through building relationships with physician groups and patient advocacy organizations to create and support community education, develop relationships with community leaders and hear trusted voices’ views on health and wellness in those communities. Committing to an intentional process to ensure diversity both internally and externally will not only strengthen the industry but will promote the health of all communities.

Now is the time where we, as representatives of the pharmaceutical industry, must hold a mirror up to ourselves and answer the difficult question: Are we living out our mission and ensuring better health for ALL?

Topics: PhRMA Member Company, Health Equity, Equity