Today’s commercials look different than those made throughout the last decade. Maybe it has something to do with the country’s first Black president winning a second term in office. We now see more diversity in ads. If the campaign’s entire cast wasn’t Black, more couples were at least interracial.

This trend has grown since the summer of 2020. The murder of Breonna Taylor in her apartment by Louisville, Kentucky police officers and the graphic video of George Floyd’s death on a Minneapolis street led to national outrage that—cynically speaking—marketers tapped into.

Fast forward to January 2021. Americans celebrated, debated, and followed news coverage about the peaceful transition of power that occurred a mere two weeks after protestors stormed the Capitol. The first person sworn into office that day was Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first Black, and first person of Southeast Asian descent to hold the office of Vice President. That’s a lot of firsts.

But there’s still much work ahead to end racial disparities that plague the social fabric of our country—not to mention the healthcare system.

This is an ideal time for insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, providers, and partners within a broken system to do more than “check a box” or add people of color to their marketing campaigns. It’s time to dig in and do lasting work that achieves real, measurable equity and justice.

Recognizing Disparity

It is hard to see racism when you are not a victim of it. Fortunately, we can all learn from numerous studies about ways race affects treatment and access to care.

  • Women of color have a 40% higher mortality rate from breast cancer yet represent just 6% of breast cancer clinical trial participants.
  • 4% of the population is of Hispanic descent yet Hispanic people represent 38% of COVID deaths.
  • 12% of the population is comprised of Non-Hispanic Black people yet this group makes up 34% of COVID deaths.
  • Prostate cancer death rates are 2.5 times higher for Black men than for non-Hispanic white men.
  • Non-Hispanic Black women are three times more likely than white women to have pregnancy-related death.
  • Black patients experience limbs amputation at three times the rate of other patients.
  • Mexican Americans are twice as likely as whites to be diagnosed with diabetes.
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy 5.5 years shorter than all other races in the U.S.—73 years to 78.5 years, respectively.
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives die at higher rates than other Americans from chronic liver disease, diabetes mellitus, unintentional injuries, assault/homicide, intentional self-harm/suicide, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and more.
  • Tuberculosis is 35 times more common in Asian Americans than among non-Hispanic whites.
  • Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are 80% more likely to be obese compared with non-Hispanic whites.

These are just a few statistics that should be top-of-mind for brands with the power to affect change.

Fighting for Change

Activist Maimah Karmo was understandably distraught when at 31, she found a lump in her breast. At the time, her oncologist dismissed her concerns, saying she was too young to have breast cancer. Karmo said, “She (the oncologist) told me to come back in six months to a year or when I was 40. If I’d taken her advice, I would most likely be metastatic or dead today.”

Karmo fought for six months to get a biopsy which proved she had cancer. Karmo is now cancer-free and is a dedicated advocate for breast cancer patients and survivors. As founder and CEO of the Tigerlily Foundation, she helps healthcare organizations and pharmaceutical companies become more inclusive.

“If you’re a white-led organization that has no understanding of what a Black person in Mississippi, or southeast D.C., or in the lower-end community in Baltimore, or wherever, is living with, how do you presume to make solutions for us if you don’t understand that perspective?” she says. “If you don’t discuss the problems and you just put out fancy ads and put people in these platforms that look in a way that can appease the general public, you’re not making a difference.”

Karmo and Tigerlily gladly promote organizations that demonstrate a commitment to understanding communities of color. Companies such as Amgen, Lilly, Daiichi Sankyo, Sanofi, Seagen, and Pfizer build partnerships to develop the correct messaging. They have more inclusive clinical trials. Karmo believes these companies go beyond mere tokenism or simply checking off a box. . They’re working to make inroads, moving clinical trials to rural areas, and creating access to trials for hourly workers and single parents. They’re improving the availability of telehealth.

While Karmo sees change, she worries about the public’s short attention span. She says, “People aren’t trained to focus on what’s important. They focus on what’s entertaining. I don’t want the world to be entertained by these marketing companies because entertainment is distracting us from the real problem—and that is that disparities still exist.”

Taking Action

Lasting change requires a careful, and sometimes, uncomfortable examination of policies and procedures. Building bridges that close gaps often requires the guidance of someone who has actually experienced inequity.

Otsuka Pharmaceutical Development & Commercialization Inc. Vice President, Dr. Charlotte Jones-Burton, recently wrote about ways pharma companies could make a difference—by practicing diversity, serving the underserved, and expanding clinical trials.

Diversity is the goal, but culture is hard to change. Motivation comes from performance improvements that businesses exhibit through diverse workforces—and diverse management. With different ideas coming to the table, an organization can identify a variety of solutions. Just as one treatment can’t cure all ills, one solution doesn’t fit every situation.

With greater diversity comes the opportunity to reach out to underserved communities. People who have never been marginalized, oppressed, or experienced the lack of service that comes in a world of disparities would not know what to look for. To address the underserved, you must be able to identify the underserved. The best people to identify underserved communities are those who know what it’s like to live there.

If the executive team isn’t as diverse as it could be, the organization can ask—and listen—to what a community need. This is a far better approach than simply deciding what that community needs. Those affected know best. It’s empowering to be heard after being overlooked.

Improving participation in clinical trials requires overcoming centuries of mistrust. The Black community was once the subject of experiments that made it hard for African Americans to believe doctors have their best interests at heart. In other instances, underserved minority communities are not made aware of clinical trials as frequently as their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Regarding clinical trials, the FDA says, “[Trials] should represent the patients that will be using the medical products.” Officials called the underrepresentation a concern, reporting that, “people of different ages, races, and ethnicities may react differently to medical products.”

It is incumbent on all of us—marketers, manufacturers, and providers—to create a system of health equity. Instead of a token nod to diversity, it’s time to demand a different way.


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