Ramona Sequeira, recently appointed chair of the PhRMA board of directors and president of Takeda’s US Business Unit and Global Portfolio Commercialization, gives her take on how the biopharma industry can do more to address the systemic inequities in US healthcare, including community-focused grant programs, clinical trial diversity initiatives, and promoting diversity within its own companies.
The biopharmaceutical industry discovers and develops medicines and vaccines that can change people’s lives for the better. In the US, patients can access more ground-breaking treatments and cures than anywhere else in the world. But our current healthcare system is complex, and COVID-19 has laid bare the systemic inequities for many of the communities we serve. Unfortunately, unequal access to care isn’t limited to the pandemic. These issues are systemic and date back generations.
Collectively we can do more to build capacity, identify and remove barriers to care and help reshape systems to work for all, not just some
Systemic issues require a systemic approach to solutions. As the current chair of PhRMA’s board of directors, I’m committed to ensuring our industry works together, and with other healthcare stakeholders, to help make equitable care – including prevention, diagnosis, treatment and affordability – available to all people regardless of geography, socioeconomics, race, ethnicity, education, literacy, gender or orientation. Collectively we can do more to build capacity, identify and remove barriers to care and help reshape systems to work for all, not just some.
By proactively reaching out to patients, patient advocacy groups, healthcare providers and community leaders, we can partner to identify the root causes of health inequity and pursue opportunities for change in the private sector as well as the local, state, and federal levels of the public sector. To that end, PhRMA is working with lawmakers and healthcare leaders to help address these important issues, and our industry has put forward solutions to help break down these barriers.
As we approach these conversations, it’s important to lead with humility — to acknowledge that we don’t always have the right answer – and to trust that community leaders and experts have insights we need to develop solutions that effect positive and lasting change. Many local organisations are already deeply embedded within their communities, working to expand access to care for underserved populations. We’ve seen how our support in the right ways can help extend their capacity to reach more people and change more lives for the better.
An example of this capacity-building approach is PhRMA’s Collaborative Actions to Reach Equity (CAREs) grant program, which supports community-centred efforts to address health inequities and find scalable, practical solutions that can be applied to solve challenges for communities, disease states, or public health concerns. Examples of programs funded by these grants range from providing trusted resources on COVID-19 vaccines to underrepresented populations, to exploring new and innovative ways of helping underrepresented children take their inhalers as prescribed.
As we put patients first and strive to meet individuals where they are, not where we think they should be, we’re also working to broaden the patient populations we consider as part of our drug discovery and development process, particularly when designing and implementing clinical trials.
Making clinical trials more diverse is a crucial public health issue. While individuals of all races and cultural backgrounds may be impacted by the same disease, individual access to care and response to treatments can differ dramatically. Greater diversity in clinical trials can help ensure greater equity in diagnosis, care, and treatment. This can be achieved by helping to re-establish relationships impacted by medical mistrust among communities negatively impacted by industry and healthcare practices from decades earlier. Critically, that mistrust may still be causing harm in marginalised communities today.
Making clinical trials more diverse is a crucial public health issue
Last year, PhRMA worked closely with our industry partners to develop the first ever industry-wide principles on clinical trial diversity. We also convened more than 500 people from more than 150 healthcare and community organisations to further identify specific needs and strategies to make clinical trials more equitable and reflective of the patient populations they seek to treat.
To show up authentically in marginalised communities, we also need to address the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) challenges inside our own organisations, so our industry workforce becomes more reflective of society.
Diversity can and should be seen as a source of strength and vitality. Drawing on the breadth of our skills, backgrounds and experiences is how we will continue to find creative and sustainable solutions to address complex challenges. And it will help us retain, attract and develop the talent we need to not only meet, but to stay ahead of the expectations of all the communities we serve.
To help support these efforts, PhRMA has joined the Congressional Bipartisan Historically Black Colleges and Universities Caucus Partnership Challenge to strengthen connections between Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and private industry, to provide more career opportunities to students and to advance DEI efforts across all sectors of employment.  PhRMA also recently hosted a summit and career expo for graduate students interested in careers within the pharmaceutical industry and is partnering with Women of Color in Pharma (WOCIP), a group that advances the professional development of minority women in our industry. Investing our time and resources in efforts like these will help us retain, elevate and empower underrepresented voices and ensure our workforce adequately and accurately reflects the diverse perspectives and insights we need to advance health equity for all patients.
At the end of the day, our work is about getting discoveries from the lab to the patients who need them. The illnesses and conditions we seek to treat or prevent often don’t discriminate. Neither should our efforts to improve patient outcomes.
I’ve been encouraged by the level and depth of conversation the healthcare industry has had on health disparities and inequities over the past several years. Now it’s time to double down on our actions to drive meaningful change so that together, we can take concrete steps to a more equitable and sustainable healthcare system.