Ripples of change in R&D

Words by Jade Williams

With bias being prevalent within the healthcare industry, pharma is in a prime position to create waves of change and educate HCPs on matters currently flying under the radar. But how can this be done effectively?


Healthcare has an implicit bias problem. For decades, the voices behind health technology and pharmaceutical innovations have belonged to the same group of white men aged 30 or over, leaving little room for diverse voices to be heard. Inclusivity must be implemented to rock the waters of future R&D cycles.


Concerns for women of colour


A prime example of this is visible within the realm of reproductive health. Speaking at Cannes Lions: The International Festival of Creativity, Claire Gillis, CEO, VMLY&R Health, comments: “In the US, if you are a black woman your chances of not surviving pregnancy are three to four times more than if you are a white woman.” This is such a prevalent and worrying issue that Olympic gold medalist Tianna Bartoletta, also speaking at the event, notes that when she went into labour “rather than having a hospital bag I had my will in an envelope”.


Prior to becoming pregnant, Bartoletta personally encountered implicit bias from healthcare professionals while experiencing gynaecological pain. HCPs ignored her concerns and refused to refer her to a gynaecologist until she demanded to be taken seriously. Only through this determination was she able to break the bias of the doctor and have her health concerns investigated, which was eventually diagnosed as a uterine tumour.


Rather than having a hospital bag I had my will in an envelope

This should not be the standard. Also participating in the discussion at Cannes, Walter Geer, Chief Experience Design Officer, VMLY&R Health, states that so many health concerns go undiagnosed because “not many people do speak up like that – it can be intimidating when you’re in these places”.


Education and representation


Education cycles must be improved to ensure patients do not have to act as the disruptor in their own healthcare journeys. It’s here that pharma companies can make a difference, initiating change from the top down by helping to educate HCPs on gender and racial differences. This will ensure they are consistently acting in patients’ best interests and not being influenced by bias so no one misses out on a life-saving diagnosis or treatment.


How to do this? Geer has a crucial suggestion. “We need to know how to speak with individuals as opposed to at them,” he says. “And that starts with ensuring that we actually have diversity in positions and diverse individuals actually doing the work.” Pharma must employ a range of people within medical education teams who are representative of wider patients populations. This will serve as a key driver in propelling change forward as diverse voices can offer valuable personal insights that may not otherwise be obvious to HCPs who do not belong to minority groups.


Be the change


A winning example of inclusivity in pharma was evident during Moderna’s development of its COVID-19 vaccine. Jennifer Dubose, Associate Director, Cognitive Empowerment Program and SimTigrate Design Lab, also speaking at Cannes, notes that “it took longer to get their drug approved because they wanted more robust data – they wanted data that showed how it works for all kinds of people, not just one subgroup”. This dedication to include a wide variety of people in its research ultimately produced a safe vaccine with inclusive proof of efficacy, despite extending development timelines. Trust is an incredibly important pillar to build upon in any industry but especially so in pharma. Therefore, doing extensive and inclusive research before launch set Moderna’s vaccine out as the preferred option for many underrepresented groups.


Gillis closes by noting that pharma collectively must “create that disruption to get that change”. Inclusivity in pharma is no longer a nice to have, but an expectation. To truly provide the best for patients, pharma must act quickly to cast the first stones of change, sending ripples through to HCPs and beyond.


This article features in GOLD 23 – read the full issue here.