COVID-19, Healthcare Access, & Equity at Pfizer (w/ Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron)

Kicking off the campaign, Zach sits down with Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, Pfizer’s first Chief Patient Officer. They discuss her own career and her role as Chief Patient Officer at Pfizer. Make sure to click the links in the show notes to learn more about Pfizer’s effort to make the COVID-19 vaccine accessible for everyone.

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TRANSCRIPT

Zach: Dr. Dara, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Dr. Dara: I’m doing great. And I’m just delighted to be here with you, Zach. Thank you for having me on the Living Corporate show. I’ve been reflecting on how vital spaces like Living Corporate are for young Black and brown professionals navigating their career. So I’m just honored to be here, and thank you for your vision and service. Actually, I wish there were more resources like this available to me when I was just starting out.
Zach: Oh, my gosh, Doctor, you’ve got me blushing. Okay. Well, hold on now. Let’s start by talking about your journey. You’ve taken a relatively non-traditional path. Why did you choose to take on the roles that you have in your career, given that you’re a medical doctor?
Dr. Dara: Well, Zach, that’s a great question. Let me start by sharing a bit about my background and professional journey. I was laser-focused on becoming a doctor from as early as I can remember. It was one of the few times I haven’t had a plan B. In fact, my parents told me that by the time I reached the ripe old age of two that I was convinced that I could will power and influence as a leader. They actually shared that during my terrific twos–they didn’t call them terrific. I think they probably were. I declared to them and anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a doctor, and it’s interesting, I think that choice was influenced in part by my grandparents’ general practitioner. That’s what it was called at the time. I’m dating myself, I know.
Dr. Dara: But his name was Dr. Finley, and Dr. Finley was like a small G god to them. He was actually their go-to, not only for their healthcare issues but for honestly everything major that I can remember. My grandparents trusted their doctor literally with their life. And I guess somehow seeing that trusted relationship from an early age inspired me to want to play a similar role in people’s lives, to be someone that people can trust for information.
Dr. Dara: Now, fortunately as a result of a whole lot of studying, combined with the love, guidance, and support of my family and countless mentors, I achieved my goal of going to medical school and becoming a doctor, and I went to New York University. It’s interesting, choosing to study medicine at New York University, medical school in New York. It was very intentional.
Dr. Dara: And it was because I wanted to learn about health care and preventive medicine in one of the most diverse cities in the world and at a place where I’d have the opportunity to provide high quality care for also a diverse array of people who presented with a diverse set of medical challenges and conditions. And so I also did my medical residency in internal medicine at Bellevue Hospital, which many of you may know is the oldest public hospital in the nation. Everybody knows Bellevue. A lot of people know it for the psychiatric part of it, but it’s also one of the largest hospitals in the United States. And I chose Bellevue because for years I’ve learned about health disparities in academic settings, but at Bellevue–let me be clear, at Bellevue you’re on the front lines. You’re seeing health disparities play out in a real way. And it’s sad because it’s often because people just have little or no access to healthcare.
Dr. Dara: And when I was in medical school it was at the height of the AIDS epidemic, before we were even calling it AIDS. We had very, very limited treatment options, and people were dying left and right, much like we’re seeing now with COVID. And honestly, I think it was my experiences at Bellevue that made it crystal clear that I wanted to use my time and talents to make a difference in the world far beyond what was possible in a typical medical practice at the time. And so honestly I said, “I’m not going to be bound. I’m not going to let anybody put any limits on my potential or box me.” I’ve kept my eyes open on how I could leverage my skills as a leader.
Dr. Dara: And I just have been very intentional about not allowing my doctorate of medicine to delimit me. So you’re right, my path has been truly non-traditional. I’ve had a 25+-year professional career that’s spanned leadership roles in for-profit companies, non-profit government organizations. I’ve led in the health department at Con Edison. I’ve had executive positions at United Cerebral Palsy, at Susan G. Komen. YWCA USA, and most recently the National Institutes of Health, and I’ve carried learnings from each of these experiences with me. And of course this collective experience also informs the work I do today at Pfizer as chief patient officer. And so for me throughout my career, the goal has been continuous learning, continuous growth, and most importantly, continuous impact.
Zach: I love that. And in your medical path, you ultimately wanted to go into pharmaceuticals. I’m curious, what drew you to the pharmaceutical industry specifically?
Dr. Dara: Yes, that’s very interesting. I actually joined Pfizer in February of 2020, right as the pandemic lockdown started here, and I’m in New York City. So, I’m relatively new to the world of pharmaceuticals, and some might consider joining a major pharmaceutical company to be an unusual choice for a physician who is also a healthcare advocate, but I don’t. And let me just say I’m not naive at all to some of the concerns and perceptions that people have about biopharma companies, but as a caregiver and as a physician whose family and patient’s lives have been enhanced, extended, or even saved by biopharmaceuticals, I’ve always been grateful for those on the front lines in this industry, developing treatments that have led to major advances in health and longevity. Think about the vaccine, Pfizer’s mission is breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.
Dr. Dara: And it’s one that I fully believe in, but I need to be really clear here. For me, this is also very personal. I myself was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34, and basically for treatment at that time there were four cocktails of IV chemotherapy, and honestly one was worse than the other, but these treatments developed by pharma companies saved my life, and that’s why I’m blessed to still be here today to talk to you, Zach. So thanks to continued research, medical breakthroughs, innovative advances and new treatments developed by this industry, doctors today have an arsenal of medical treatments designed to enhance the quality of life and survival rates for many devastating chronic and rare diseases, and that’s really good news.
Dr. Dara: So you asked why I wanted to go into this field. It’s because I and many of my patients, my family members, my friends, we’ve been the beneficiaries of significant advances in medicine, and so a large part of my motivation to take on this role as chief patient officer comes from wanting to ensure that the advancements from biopharmaceutical companies that enable me to be here with you today, I want those to be accessible to everyone, irrespective of their background, their income, or their zip code.
Dr. Dara: And I get it. Pharma is a strict and regulated industry. And yes, there are many different procedures in place to ensure medicines are safe. But let me tell you, these past 14 months have been anything but dry or dull.
Zach: I would imagine.
Dr. Dara: Yes, honestly, over the past few months, I’ve seen firsthand–and quite frankly the entire world has now seen how, when pharmaceutical companies mobilize and work together, we can achieve breakthroughs and innovations that nobody thought possible. Literally breakthroughs that have changed the world.
Zach: And it’s interesting, and I know we have a few folks that we’ve interviewed for this series. We’ve spoken to Myron Terry, and we’ll be sharing his interview a little bit later, but it’s interesting. I don’t see a lot of us in these very senior positions. We’re going to talk about your role in a little bit, but I’m curious – you’re a very prominent member of Pfizer. You’re in this position. It’s been a little over a year. But this is your first C-suite role. As someone who sat in these executive roles at various organizations, how have these barriers, specifically regarding racism, sexism, misogyny, how have they shaped your career and motivations? How have you navigated those fields? And I ask this because really, it’s so rare. We’ve seen the numbers. We know that there aren’t many Black or Latinx or just generally Black and brown folks at this level. What has it been like for you not only to get to this level, but then also stay there?
Dr. Dara: Well, that’s a very interesting question. And you mentioned, this is my first C-suite role. No, I’ve been in the C-suite for most of my career. So, let’s just clear that up.
Zach: Apologies. No. Yes. And if I said, I misspoke, what I meant was, you’re in the C-suite role here, but you’ve been in C-suite positions for several years of many organizations,
Dr. Dara: Yes. And trust me, the reason why I want to say that is not because I need the praise, but I said it because I want to make it clear, I’ve got plenty stories to tell. So let me just share a couple of stories that I really feel illustrate some of the barriers and challenges. My first professional role as a physician was at Consolidated Edison of New York, the electric company, and people might say, “Well, what were you doing at Con Edison?” Well, I was serving as the medical director of the company’s occupational health department, providing health evaluations and disease management to the more than 16,000 employees at the time. And in that role, I not only practiced medicine, but I also learned important leadership, business, financial, human resources and management skills, all of which have been invaluable to me and have helped me get into so many C-suite positions.
Dr. Dara: And I was young. I was fresh out of residency, and I was full of energy, and after a year or so on the job I heard about the company’s high potential program for high-achievement employees. And as time passed, it became clear that many of my colleagues in other areas were being considered for the program, but not me. And I was, “Well, wait a minute. I know that I’m accomplishing a lot and I’m meeting all my goals,” in fact exceeding most of them, and so one day I just raised my hand and directly asked why wasn’t I being considered. And it’s funny, one of the executives who actually later became a great friend of mine, and she said, without hesitation–and I’m going to quote her–she said, “Listen, Dara, you already have a doctorate of medicine. You don’t need any additional development or a higher title,” end quote.
Dr. Dara: Now, I have to admit, I was surprised by her candor, but I was also deeply disturbed, and that’s most of all because she, and apparently others, had taken the liberty to make decisions about me and my career advancement without the respect or courtesy of even checking in with me. You know, I’m not a shrinking violet, and you can’t be as a woman of color if you want to get ahead. So I very respectfully but clearly let her know that neither she nor any other company leader has the ability to put a limit on or confine my achievement.
Dr. Dara: And here’s the takeaway – many advancements have been made. There are a few more women in higher level positions, but still, today, as a woman, and certainly as a woman of color, you often have to raise your hand and say, “Hey, consider me, see me.” It’s just the reality. And yes, for those who are wondering, I did get into that high potential program, and ultimately I was selected to a very coveted position to serve as a special assistant to the CEO. So that’s just one story. I have many. I have many.
Zach: Something that you spoke to though is there is this reality of those on the margins, that we’re often told, “Well, you’ve already done good enough.”
Dr. Dara: Oh, yes.
Zach: So I have a similar–I’ll trade you a story. So I recall I was in seventh grade and I was in Minnesota. I moved to live with my dad for a couple of years. I was in Minnesota.
Dr. Dara: My nieces and nephews grew up in Minnesota. My oldest sister’s there in Eden Prairie.
Zach: Okay. So then she wouldn’t know Woodbury, because that’s where I was.
Dr. Dara: Okay.
Zach: So anyway, so I was in Woodbury, Minnesota, and they did the whole check-in at the mid-year or the mid-six weeks, whatever it was, and the English teacher was talking to me and doing the parent conference thing, and the English teacher asked me, “Well, what kind of books are you reading?” And I said, “I’m reading Virginia Hamilton, I’m reading–” Just some other books that were more senior level books or just higher literature books, and I’ll never forget, the teacher looked at me and said, “You don’t have to try so hard. You don’t have to read such advanced books. There’s no need.” And I’ll never forget my father, he looked at me in the middle of the conversation. He didn’t say anything. And then we walked out the room and he said, “Son, don’t ever live your life with the limiters of other people on you.”
Dr. Dara: That’s right. Absolutely.
Zach: And so to your point, I think it is easy because folks may see you and say, “Well, they could have never imagined someone with your profile even having a medical doctorate. So why would you want to do more? You’ve already exceeded my own expectations,” but we don’t live to exceed or to match other people’s expectations. We have to live with our own expectations.
Dr. Dara: Absolutely. And it’s so funny, that must be a thing in Minnesota, because my nephew experienced almost the same thing, and my sister and brother-in-law went up to the parent teacher conference. He was about in the sixth or seventh grade. And basically, the one comment that the teacher had for my sister and brother-in-law was, “We think Brandon–he’s making A’s on all of his classes, but he would be well-served to let other kids have a chance to answer some of the questions.” I’m like, “Oh, my goodness.” So it’s the reality. It’s the world we live in. Fortunately, we have parents, mentors, and friends, colleagues, and others who can share their stories to help us know that the reality is you’ve got to not allow the haters to erode your life. I have a thing that I say, “Let your haters make you greater,” and that’s what you have to do.
*air horns sfx*
Zach: I love that.
Dr. Dara: That’s what you have to do.
Zach: So let’s continue forward. As you look back, you have an illustrious career. And I’m not trying to gas you up–
Dr. Dara: It’s okay. You can if you want to.
Zach: I’ve got the sound effects. I’m gonna have my sound man put a little air horn right here, because it’s incredible. Is there one thing–looking back, if you could talk to a younger Dara, what advice would you have given yourself? And what would have helped you, do you think, in your career as you progressed forward?
Dr. Dara: Well, there are a lot of things I wish I had known. Fortunately, my parents did try to prepare us for the world, but you know how you’re young and naive, and I remember my dad used to sit us down at the table and he’d talk about the tough times he’d have at work, and I remember my sisters and I would say, “Oh, Daddy, he’s such an angry man,“ but we didn’t even know the half of what my dad was living through and what he was going through at his job. It’s just amazing. But I guess first, we’ve all heard that it’s important for leaders of all stripes, and particularly women, to strategically raise your hand and sign up and be bold and be out of the box and participate in non-traditional opportunities.
Dr. Dara: You have to do that because if you don’t do all of that, particularly sometimes as a woman of color, as a woman, you won’t get recognized at all. However, as a young professional, the young Dara–and still today I have what I call a serious case of “helium hands.” This term was actually coined by Dr. Pamela Peeke, and she has a book called “Body-for-LIFE for Women,” and it refers to the phenomenon many women, myself included, experience. We take on way too much. Our hands drift up almost involuntarily to sign up for yet another project despite already having a full plate and doing more than our colleagues more often than not. And I think perhaps if I had known that this disease of helium hands was incurable once you got older, I might’ve made sure not to catch it, or at least I would’ve developed a stronger muscle by now to say no more often.
Dr. Dara: And I say this a bit tongue and cheek. I do believe that it is important to strategically raise your hand and sign up for out of the box opportunities, but the truth of the matter is this. While I’ve achieved success in many areas of my life, achieving work-life balance has been challenging, and a lot of it has to do with my determination to succeed and the realities of being a woman of color, but the truth is no one is expendable, and it’s just not healthy to always burn the candle on both ends, because the truth is when you say yes to everything, it will almost certainly force you to have to say no to something or someone that might be even more important. And at the end of the day, saying yes to everything leaves you exhausted.
Dr. Dara: And, I just want to get this in, Zach, if you’ll indulge me. It brings me to my next point. It’s so important–and I’m talking to myself here too–to take care of ourselves, to take time to rest, especially as ambitious professionals. This past year and a half has been devastating for everyone, but particularly hard for many communities of color around the world, watching and dealing with the reality and trauma of George Floyd’s murder, the murders of so many other Black and brown individuals, the ongoing civil rights protests on top of the mass trauma brought on by COVID and the health disparities that impacts our loved ones and communities at an alarming rate. It has been exhausting to say the least. And while we don’t have all the data, we know that in addition to the physical toll, these events are taking a huge mental toll on communities of color. And so it’s so important that we do everything we can to take care of our mental and our physical health in and out of the workplace.
Dr. Dara: We have to make sure that we are protecting our peace. We have to give ourselves permission to step back when we need to. And again, I’m talking to me here, and whether that means telling our team or even our family that we need to take a break for the afternoon, or we need to seek community and support from networks like Living Corporate, listen to your podcasts. We need to make ourselves and our needs a priority. It’s absolutely critical.
Dr. Dara: And I just want to say there are many mental health resources to consider out there, such as Mental Health America. They have a website—that’s mhanational.org. There’s something called the Black Mental Health Alliance, and their website is blackmentalhealth.com. I ran across something called BEAM, and it’s called the Black Emotional And Mental Health Collective, and their website is beam.community. And of course there’s the National Alliance of Mental Health, and that’s nami.org. These are groups that are committed to the healing of Black communities, and we should not be afraid to seek help if we need it.
Zach: I love that. 100%. And since you’re talking about organizations, another one, Academics for Black Survival and Wellness.
Dr. Dara: I love that. Yes.
Zach: Yes. So academicsforblacklives.com, and then–you know what? I’m gonna go ahead and talk about–since we’re talking about this, and before we pivot on, I want to talk about The Break Room. So The Break Room, under the Living Corporate Network, it’s actually hosted by four Black psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists, all talking about mental health, wellness, and healing for Black folks, particularly in the context of work. You talked about, Dr. Dara, this idea, this concept of labor and protecting your peace. That just resonates so much with me. It’s easy, I think–especially if you’re one of the onlys–subconsciously or consciously to just work harder. You talked about the fact that you found yourself doing more. I think it’s easy to just get in that habit and you look up and you’ve been doing more for several years. Not even just several weeks. You look at it like, “Wow, I’ve been burning the candle at both ends for several, several, several seasons.”
Dr. Dara: Yes. Let’s say decades. And to be honest, Zach, most people of color, if you’re in any level of authority, no matter what you are burning the candle on both ends. And part of it is our own doing because we have to do more, and that is really true, but a lot of it is–
Zach: Internalised.
Dr. Dara: Yeah, but we’ve got to realize if we don’t take care of ourselves and put our own mask on, we’re not going to be available for anybody else. So I’m not saying we need to be slackers, but maybe not 250%. Maybe we can dial it back to, like, 175 or so.
Zach: Maybe so. So you’re absolutely right. I think about the fact that I’m coming out of–I’m an ex-consultant in, you know, the big four. You’re talking about the Accentures of the world, Capgemini, PWC. So anybody that knows that space of just professional client service, that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about 40, 50, 60-hour weeks, and going above and beyond, and that becomes the new floor, and then you have to somehow outperform that.
Dr. Dara: Absolutely. And you know what else, Zach? This whole shift to virtual work, there are times when I’m in my home office, I go in before 8:00 and I’m still there at . That is just not healthy for anyone. And so while being at home, people may think that it’ll give you more freedom and flexibility. I’m finding that, and a lot of the data is showing that, people are working longer and harder hours. So we really have to figure out a better way, because at the end of the day, when you’re gone, you might get a plaque at the office, and the company’s going to move on.
Zach: They are going to move on. You’re a hundred percent right. Man, that’s so true. And you have one life to live, and you need to be thoughtful, and I think it’s obvious I’m talking to someone with a medical Ph.D. How you take care of your body matters. We only get one of them on this side. We gotta be thoughtful.
Zach: So let’s switch gears and focus a bit on your role and your work at Pfizer. You started your role as the chief patient officer last winter, right before this pandemic really picked the momentum up. I see the title, chief patient officer. What does that mean? And what were your expectations? You came into this role pre-pandemic. What were your expectations of the role in 2020, and then how did they shift, if they shifted at all, as the year progressed?
Dr. Dara: Well, yes, it’s an interesting question. As I mentioned earlier, I kind of kicked off this role at the same time that COVID kicked off. I was actually being recruited for this role in late 2019 before COVID-19 was in my or anyone’s lexicon. So it’s amazing when they say “What a difference a day makes.” Whew. Man, it’s amazing how quickly things change. And in fact, as you mentioned, I just celebrated my one-year anniversary, and it’s just been an amazing ride. I have this thing that I talk to my nieces and nephews about. It’s called the five Ps, and it’s Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. So I pride myself on trying to be prepared for every eventuality, but let me just be clear, I and many others surely didn’t see a pandemic coming when I was considering the chief patient officer role. And take it from me, onboarding during a pandemic is not for the faint of heart. But I’m a woman of faith, and I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason.
Dr. Dara: And I’m also deeply honored and proud to have had the opportunity to be part of Pfizer’s amazing accomplishments over the past year. In terms of my role, my chief patient officer role is primarily to engage employees, patients, and patient advocacy groups to advance our goal of improving health outcomes and reducing healthcare disparities, and also by ensuring that the patient perspective is at the center of everything we do. And we have to, you know, identify and create frameworks on how we interact with patients. And we share learnings. We also have to find opportunities to collaborate both internally and externally, and also figure out how to co-create or create solutions by working with patients, not just for patients.
Dr. Dara: Now, this part of the job really didn’t change. That was always a part of the job, because the reality is, you know, why we have a chief patient officer role is, let’s face it, if we develop medicines, treatments or vaccines without the direct input and participation of patients from all walks of life, it’s very hard to ensure that these developments are going to be actually beneficial for all patients. And so I came to Pfizer knowing about this, and I was really excited about this possibility to really change and impact lives. And I continue to be humbled by my colleagues who are committed to focus in on patients and in health equity. Now, you asked how did the pandemic change things. Well, because of the pandemic, during my first few weeks on the job, as I mentioned, there was no time for onboarding. Thankfully they got a seasoned professional, but it was all hands on deck.
Dr. Dara: I was called into action right away to leverage my skills, my knowledge and my expertise as a physician, actually, to serve as a spokesperson about COVID to both internal and external key stakeholders, and also very early on in my tenure, and particularly once we knew that Pfizer was going to develop a vaccine, I was able to leverage my experience from the National Institutes of Health, where I served as the chief engagement officer, and I worked with the Pfizer clinical research teams to double down on our clinical trial diversity efforts and do everything we could to achieve equitable representation in our COVID-19 clinical trials. This was vitally important, and we are so proud of our success in this regard. And the reason being is if you are not part of the research, you risk being left out of the cures.
Dr. Dara: And so it was important for us to work with community partners and make sure that we selected clinical sites and diverse communities so that people who were most impacted by COVID could participate in the research, and that way we would know that the vaccine that was created would be impactful in those communities. Zach, I think you may or may not know, but I’m sure that it’s important for me to make it clear. A lot of the medicines that are out there today have not been tested on Black and brown communities, often because we’re not participating in the trials. Now, the reality is there are many reasons why there’s hesitancy on our part to participate in the trials– because of historic transgressions–but the truth is there have been many protections put in place to protect research subjects.
Dr. Dara: And as I said, if you’re not part of the research, there’s no guarantee that the medicines, the vaccines or anything developed is going to be impactful in your community. So I just want to put in a plug there to make sure that we, as people of color, are participating in clinical trials, because it matters. And so, whether it’s pre- or post-COVID, my focus is on making sure that we can all work together to enhance Pfizer’s capacity for what we call end-to-end partnerships with advocacy, and that is really listening to and responding to patients up through every phase of our work here at Pfizer. And it’s no small feat in such a large organization, but I’m really excited to be here in this role at this moment.
Zach: And I am thankful that we have someone in a role specifically to advocate for those who are—we’ll call them perhaps the least among us, and the people whose voice is going unheard. It’s incredible, and to that end, in previous conversations–I want to say actually in the profile that Pfizer published about you, again, about a little over one year ago, you talked about patient-centric care and that it isn’t really as complex as people make it out to be, that it’s really no more complex than just listening to patients. What steps do you feel need to be taken to make sure that the voices of patients are heard, particularly those on the margins?
Dr. Dara: You know, and that’s such a great question, Zach. Historically medicine has been practiced from the point of view of the physician. Remember my grandparents’ general practitioner that I mentioned before, Dr. Finley, who was like a little G god to them? It’s remarkable, but also somewhat limiting, and if we think about industry more broadly, medicine development has typically been driven by the insights of scientists and the research labs and commercial experts who work to ensure that they understand the needs of patients and healthcare providers. And while all of this was well-intentioned, it was a paternalistic model. And so today, patients are much more informed, and they not only want, but they deserve to be partners in their own healthcare and disease prevention and in making treatment decisions as appropriate.
Dr. Dara: Traditionally, as physicians, we saw ourselves as working on behalf of patients, but going forward, we want to work more directly with patients. And when I think about it, there are three key steps that really should be taken to create respectful and what I call bi-directional relationships with patients. First, we have to communicate in clear and easy to understand ways. The smartest people, you should be able to break down medical jargon in a way that people understand it.
Dr. Dara: The second thing we have to do is listen. And when I say listen, I mean without judgment. And then of course the third is to work in partnership, to co-create solutions, to take action and incorporate what we learn into our standard practices. We have so many examples at Pfizer of how we are doing this, and I am so excited to be partnering with our health literacy teams and other teams to help patients and caregivers understand their health conditions better, because the more they know the better they’ll be able to take care of themselves. But without trusted relationships, this will never happen. So our goal is to make sure that we are building the trust and making sure that patients have what they need so that they can lead healthy and productive lives.
Zach: To that end, especially around healthy and productive lives in this season, let’s talk a bit about Pfizer’s journey in developing the COVID vaccine. Can you tell us about how Pfizer considered equity and accessibility for Black and brown patients? And then what does that work look like today, where there’s still a significant portion of the population that is not vaccinated?
Dr. Dara: Yes. Again, absolutely. As I mentioned, shortly after the pandemic hit, our CEO, Albert Bourla, launched what he called a five-point plan, which called on all members of the ecosystem, from large pharmaceutical companies to the smallest of biotech companies, from government agencies to academic institutions, to commit to work together to address the dire COVID-19 crisis. This was unprecedented, because typically people were just working separately in their silos, but our leadership knew that collaboration would be required to combat this pandemic, and we also knew that we had to think proactively about reaching and engaging historically underserved populations throughout the process. So as I mentioned before, the clinical trial diversity, it required us to not only select sites that were important and diverse so that people could overcome the barriers of transportation and costs to try to get to a clinical trial site.
Dr. Dara: We also worked with many grassroots, community and professional organizations. Organizations like the National Black Nurses Association, Dia de la Mujer, to get out information and videos about the clinical trial. We worked with the NAACP to share facts with their chapters about the COVID-19 trials. We worked with the National Association of Hispanic Publishers and groups like A Hundred Black Men of America to build awareness. We worked with so many organizations to raise awareness for the need for diverse clinical trial participants, and this was so important. And you might ask, “Well, how did these efforts pay off?” Again, from a clinical trial recruitment perspective, the great news is that approximately 42% of the global participants and 30% of the U.S. participants enrolled in our clinical trial came from diverse backgrounds.
Dr. Dara: And I’ll give you just a breakdown just so that you can understand. Overall we had 5% Asian, and we had 10% Black, 26% Hispanic/Latinx, and 1.1% Native American. And it’s really important to highlight that these enrollment numbers are significantly higher than what you typically see in a clinical trial, and so we are very proud to have achieved this level of diversity in such a short period of time. And you asked, “What are you looking at now? What does it look like now?” Well, we are continuing to be very intentional about how we manage our trials going forward so that we can have similar results, because it’s so important to engage our Black and brown communities in research, because as I said, if you’re not part of the research, you may or may not benefit from the cures. And I know that we want all of our communities to have equal access to health and healthcare, and we definitely want to achieve health equity.
Zach: So, Dr. Dara, again, you’ve had a storied career. You’ve been in these board rooms for several, several years, several different organizations. You’ve seen a lot. Like you said earlier, you have a ton of stories. Right now, we’re in a season where diversity, equity, and inclusion, where equitable patient care and really an emphasis on equitable treatment for Black and brown populations, Black and brown people, marginalized people continues to be a focus. What is your message to healthcare executives looking to improve their patient care for Black and brown populations? And if you had to give them three points of advice, what would they be?
Dr. Dara: I first want to say that there is really no one size fits all way to improve patient care. Communities are just not monolithic. Everyone from providers to patient advocates, to biopharma executives, we all play a different role in addressing and [?] the health disparities. But that being said, I think there are a few helpful ways to think about being a patient advocate, particularly for Black and brown populations, but I think this goes for all communities. So the first thing is to put yourself in the shoes of the patients. In order to address an issue, you have to understand it, and you have to understand it from the patient’s vantage point. Health disparities don’t exist in a vacuum, so it’s really important for all of us to understand the types of disparities and the causes.
Dr. Dara: And we need to understand why the disparities exist in the health conditions. Is it because people can’t afford the medicines they should be taking? They don’t know where to access physicians? They don’t have access to healthcare? Or is it more related to systemic challenges? The social determinants of health, which include things like racism, poverty, lack of education, and a host of other things. We need to figure out what that is, and these are tough things to decipher, and we often don’t have a simple answer, but I think it’s important to understand these issues and put ourselves in the shoes of those we seek to serve, because it’s only by understanding the challenges that our patients face can we collectively act to reduce their barriers to care. That’s the first thing.
Dr. Dara: Secondly, we have to meet people and patients wherever they are. And I mean this both literally and figuratively. For example, you mentioned vaccine and vaccine hesitancy a little bit earlier. Let me just talk about this in terms of meeting people wherever they are in their vaccine education journey. We’re seeing varying rates of vaccine uptake from communities across the United States. Racial, ethnic, senior, and other diverse communities are responding differently to different types of engagement. And that’s okay. Precision engagement is what it’s all about. But while we must make sure that the value proposition is clear as to why people from all walks of life should consider getting vaccinated, we also have to be very mindful that at the end of the day, taking a vaccine, or any medication or treatment for that matter, is a personal decision.
Dr. Dara: And our job is not to judge or to embarrass or try to shame people, but instead we, as healthcare professionals, need to do whatever it takes to make sure that our communities, our families are fully informed with the most accurate, culturally sensitive, and actionable information available so that they can make the best decisions for themselves, their families and our world. And some providers are even meeting their patients where they are literally, removing barriers like transportation by going to the community instead of asking the community to come to them, and I love this as an idea.
Dr. Dara: For example, the city of New York recently launched a series of mobile vaccination buses, and these buses are traveling throughout all five boroughs with multi-lingual, culturally sensitive support, and the goal is to provide care for these hard-to-reach populations free of charge. That’s how you really reach a population and meet people where they are. And then thirdly, and lastly, we have to remember that patients are our partners. I spoke earlier about the need for patients to be actively involved and engaged in their care. Patients want to understand their treatment options and the benefits and risks. They want to make the decisions they want to make about their health. They want to be in the driver’s seat. Many are making decisions about what matters most to them and their families and their caregivers, and they also want to make choices about the quality of life they want to live. And I find this to be a good thing, because generally when a patient is engaged in their health, they are much more likely to be more proactive in managing their health in a most positive way, and that’s vitally important.
Dr. Dara: Now, I’ll note that there are times when it’s a fine line. Yes, you want patients involved in their care, and yes, you absolutely want them to partner with you on the best treatment, but it’s a bit of a challenge when some patients think that they become expert diagnosticians after doing just a few hours of research with Dr. Google. Now, as I’ve joked in the past, I don’t want people to confuse their 10 to 20 minutes of Google research with my 10 to 15 years of medical training.
Zach: Amen.
Dr. Dara: I think we can all agree that there’s a balance between patient input and a diagnostician’s expertise. But if I had to choose, I’m really excited about patients as partners in their health and healthcare, because I know for sure that authentic bi-directional patient engagement and shared decision-making has the potential to make a huge, positive impact on patient outcomes. So these are my three pieces of advice. Put yourself in the shoes of the patient, meet patients where they are, and remember that patients are our partner. No matter what area of healthcare you work in, with every decision you make, ask yourself, “Am I doing what I need to do to benefit the patients I’m serving?” Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.
Zach: Dr. Dara, this has been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you so much. We consider you a friend of the show, and we’re going to let you go, but thank you. We’ll talk to you soon.
Dr. Dara: Well, it’s my pleasure Zach, and thank you for having me on the show and really for creating the space for me to reflect on my career journey and my passion for Pfizer and the patient centricity work we’re doing here. It’s really a pleasure to meet you.
Zach: The pleasure is all mine. We’ll talk to you soon. Bye-bye.
Dr. Dara: Bye-bye.

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