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Advancing Health Equity in Pharma: Key Themes from the 2024 WOCIP Cluster Meetings

Contributors: Susan Shockey

Clarkston Consulting recently sponsored and attended this year’s 2024 Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP) Cluster meetings, which focused, with intention, on WOCIP’s priority of addressing health equity. The four-day event brought together industry leaders across clinical, external affairs, employee resource groups, and executives to discuss and strategize around advancing health equity in pharma.  

At the cluster meetings, a number of key themes were covered – the importance of humanizing individuals and building connections; distinguishing health equity from diversity, equity, and inclusion by focusing on access to health and addressing disparities in healthcare; and establishing a framework for addressing health equity that includes individual responsibility, organizational leadership, community engagement, and ecosystem impact.  

Based on a survey gathered from respondents, the main takeaway from the Cluster was that a large majority (78%) of participants believe there’s a gap between industry commitment to health equity and real-world results, and most (52%) would agree that biopharma companies should prioritize building public trust to advance health equity.  

Advancing Health Equity in Pharma

Below, our team highlights their top takeaways from this year’s WOCIP Cluster meetings in Philadelphia, PA, and their impact to the larger pharmaceutical industry: 

1. Evaluating Maturity Against a Health Equity Framework to Advance Impact  

A main takeaway from the WOCIP cluster was advancing the impact of promoting health equity in the life sciences, with key discussions centered around evaluating your organization’s maturity against a health equity framework. This effort requires understanding the key responsibilities of four groups – individuals, organizations, communities, and the larger ecosystem.  

  • Individual accountability: Engaging in employee resource groups, volunteering, mentorship, sponsoring, serving as champions, and participating in training and advocacy are key aspects of individual responsibility. 
  • Organizational leadership: Developing policies and procedures, ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in leadership, aligning products and services to address health disparities, and measuring the effectiveness of DEI programs with transparency are crucial for organizational leadership. This requires ensuring products, services, and algorithms used to measure data are diverse and inclusive, as data algorithms must support DEI to be effective. Evaluating and incentivizing the selection of diverse suppliers and vendors is also key. 
  • Community engagement: Building trust with patient communities, forming (or joining already existing) community advisory boards, and becoming a preferred partner are important for community engagement. Community Advisory Boards (CAB) have proven to be instrumental in quickly building trust (from protocol design to commercial market) with patients and within the communities in which they live. 
  • Ecosystem impact: Impacting the industry through policy advocacy, charitable donations, and impact investment can create broader change for health equity.

But what does that look like in action? There are a few keys to success here. A strong emphasis on community ownership and engagement in healthcare initiatives, particularly in clinical trials, is important. Building trust and ensuring the community feels ownership of the plan can lead to more sustainable and successful outcomes. Additionally, organizations need policies that prioritize evaluation from the community’s perspective, ensuring that resources aren’t just taken from the community but also used to benefit it in an integrated manner. And finally, sharing personal stories humanizes individuals and helps build connections – everyone has a background and a story that shapes their perspective and can inspire action when it comes to advancing health equity. 

However, we must remember that to have the best science, and truly achieve health equity, we must ensure everyone has access to health systems and instill pharmacoequity in everything we do. Pharmacoequity focuses on ensuring the right people and right bodies are involved, from research to real-world evidence (ensuring trial data matches real world data). The main difference between health equity and pharmacoequity is that health equity is broader and addresses more social determinants of health. The concept of pharmacoequity is more attainable for organizations to prepare for and execute on, as it offers a place to start making a meaningful impact. As we look ahead to 2025, pharmacoequity will become a mandate for the industry. 

2. Increasing Diverse Patient Enrollment & Retention in Clinical Trials: Collaboration is the Foundation  

Partnerships with community organizations, churches, and leaders have been instrumental in educating and engaging diverse communities about clinical trials, leading to increased participation and ultimately retention. Additionally, internal advocacy and leadership support are key in driving DEI efforts in developing training programs and promoting sensitivity and awareness within the organization; effectively partnering externally starts with getting DEI right inside the organization. 

To find success in this space, it’s important to keep a few key considerations in mind. Your organization must be aligned on your DEI efforts, and it must be embedded into the fabric of your organization. Through collective understanding and alignment, you can best realize a “trickle-down effect” into increasing diversity and inclusion in your clinical trials, understanding the roles everyone in the organization needs to play to drive effective outcomes. DEI starts within the organization first before it can be reflected in research, clinical trials, and commercial patient reach. To drive momentum in this space, it’s important to share and iterate on success stories. For example, Johnson & Johnson shared success stories of trials focused on skin conditions in diverse populations, showcasing the effectiveness of targeted outreach and education in improving recruitment and representation.  

Despite external challenges and potential funding fluctuations, organizations must remain committed to DEI in clinical trials, with ongoing initiatives and a focus on accountability and continuous improvement. For example, when a clinical trial is pulled due to various reasons – and after months or years being in that community and building trust – don’t let the end of the trial result in ending presence in the community. Some companies are starting to establish foundations with community groups, collaborating on campaigns with broader program topics (like women’s health), and directly asking the community what they need. 

3. Creating Strong Value Propositions to Advance Health Equity Work 

Often times, you will need to reframe your value proposition based on the audience and focus on one of the following: a) the fundamentals (like ROI, investment, value generated); b) emotion (sense of belonging, pride, inclusivity); or c) reputation (brand impact, patient centricity, sharing of voice). You must identify your audience’s pains (problems to solve) and gains (aspirations to achieve), with the ultimate goal being serving as a pain reliever and a gain creator.

Through a Value Proposition workshop at each day of the WOCIP clusters, hosted by Pam Simpkins, an R&D Strategy Leader, we learned:

  • Value Proposition Basics: A value proposition is a statement that communicates the unique benefits and targeted outcomes that a product or service delivers. It specifies the job that must be done and the benefits that will be delivered, highlighting the “secret sauce” that sets the offering apart. 
  • Leverage the Value Proposition Framework: Use a framework that considers functional (e.g., cost savings, revenue generated), emotional (e.g., inclusivity, pride, belonging), and reputational (e.g., becoming a preferred partner, societal impact) value to create a compelling value proposition. Tailor your message to your audience, focusing on outcomes and benefits. 
  • Bring it to Life: Real-life case studies can illustrate how a strong value proposition can overcome challenges and achieve significant outcomes, such as faster trial enrollment, cost savings, and breakthroughs in data. 
  • Emotional and Reputational Value: Beyond functional benefits, a strong value proposition can also create emotional connections and enhance reputation by standing up for principles and building capabilities within communities. 

4. Understanding Social Determinants (SDoH) of Health and Building Awareness 

Access to medicine isn’t always straightforward. Social and structural factors play a significant role in how patients interact with the healthcare system; the environment or a lack of healthy food, housing, and clean air and water can impact a patient’s ability to access and adhere to medications. To address these disparities, the healthcare industry needs to be intentional about removing barriers to access. This includes improving access to innovative medicines, increasing diversity in the healthcare workforce, and measuring outcomes and impacts on diverse patient populations to inform future innovation. 

It’s important to understand social determinants of health (SDoH) and how these health disparities exist for marginalized and underserved communities, which can lead to significant barriers to access. From here, we can build awareness and organizations should determine how they can bridge barriers related to SDoH. How many physicians don’t recommend clinical trials because of SDoH, such as the person not being able to afford transportation or living in a rural area, making it difficult to get to the site? How many people aren’t considered for clinical trials due to issues beyond their control? Building awareness is important to close these gaps as we look to a more equitable future.

5. Driving Change and Advocacy for Equitable Outcomes through Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) 

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are an effective avenue for connecting with those in the community who want to be engaged. We can look at this through two perspectives – Bringing the Inside Out, and Bringing the Outside In. Bringing the Inside Out means leveraging your ERG’s initiatives to engage with the community and build partnerships/trust to strengthen the value and perception of your organization. Bringing the Outside In means leveraging the data, lessons, and perspectives of your community to drive change and prioritize focus for your ERG and organization.  

At the WOCIP Cluster meetings, we learned about keys to success when it comes to successfully leveraging ERGs: 

  • Senior Leader Engagement: Engaging senior leaders involves creating a value proposition that resonates with them and using their time judiciously, aligning your ERG health equity goals with the vision of the organization. 
  • Measuring Impact: Measuring impact is crucial and requires clear outcomes, baseline data, and tools for measurement. 
  • Budgeting and Funding Strategies: There are multiple ways to secure funding for ERG-focused research and initiatives, and there may need to be some creativity applied, such as spreading costs over multiple years and engaging leaders across different parts of the organization with a strong value proposition to secure contributions. 
  • Language and Communication: There’s a focus on using language that is inclusive and strategic to avoid negative reactions or misunderstanding. This includes being specific about terms like “health disparities” and “health equity” to ensure clear communication and understanding. 
  • Data Collection and Measurement: Through their work in the community, ERGs can collect data on minority groups to better understand their health needs. This data can help drive policy changes and improve healthcare outcomes within their organization and the community at large. 
  • Influencing Change: Strategies for influencing change within organizations include aligning health equity goals with senior leaders, making connections with key decision-makers, and embedding objectives related to DEI into organizational goals. 

6. The Role of Technology and Analytics in Advancing Health Equity  

Within pharma, technology and analytics aren’t always included in the conversation surrounding health equity. The disconnect arises from a lack of clear objectives and expectations within technology itself, leading to uncertainty about its role in advancing health equity. Rather than focusing on technology for its own sake, the emphasis should be on outcomes – identifying the disparities and challenges in health equity and leveraging technology and analytics to address them effectively.

Currently, pharmaceutical companies allocate a significant portion of their resources toward R&D, leaving minimal funding for health equity initiatives. During a discussion led by Barbara Salami, previously VP of Digital Commercial Technology at Moderna, it was shared that data suggests a heavy focus on R&D (50%) with market access (20%) and internal functions like Medical Affairs and HR (10%) taking up most of the budget. With only a fraction of the budget allocated to functions directly related to health equity, the potential impact of technology remains untapped. To bridge this gap, companies need to adopt a “purposeful vision” approach. This means clearly defining the target audience, desired impact, and timelines before starting any project. Additionally, collaboration with the right people, such as community healthcare providers and patient advocacy groups, is crucial.  

Looking Ahead 

Overall, the meeting focused on ensuring all people are a part of the clinical lifecycle, from research to real-world evidence. Highlighted was the need for data-informed and driven advocacy, community engagement, and the role of technology in driving equitable outcomes in the biopharma and biotech industries. We also heard about the value of ERGs in influencing change within organizations and the critical need for transparent and collaborative efforts to build trust and ensure equitable access to healthcare resources.  

Ultimately, the event underscored the importance of a purposeful vision in technology projects, emphasizing collaboration and leveraging existing resources to optimize outcomes for marginalized communities. As Dr. LaToya Coffee, WOCIP Board Member, shared, “You should never walk alone in [health equity] work. It takes a team, not only within your organization but across the industry.” 

To chat more about our takeaways from the WOCIP Cluster meetings, advancing health equity in pharma, or the importance of equitable clinical trials, reach out to our team today 

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Contributions by Xavier Brumwell

Tags: Equitable Clinical Trials, Event Recap