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‘Diverse needs,’ not just ‘diverse patients’: How health care leaders can make care more equitable

May 11, 2022, 9:30 PM UTC

It’s clear that prior to and through the pandemic, the global health care system hasn’t treated and reached patients equally, and diverse and minority patients are being left out from all stages of the care process. And leaders in the health care space, from startups to pharmaceutical giants, all need to play a role in fixing those inequalities.

Across the board, “if you want to have inclusive health care, you have to start with having an inclusive workforce that represents those experiences, those perspectives,” Winselow Tucker, senior vice president, Intercontinental, at pharmaceutical giant Bristol Myers Squibb, said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in Marina Del Rey, Calif. on Wednesday.

But having a diverse workforce focusing on making products and drugs isn’t enough, some executives said, especially when it comes to designing clinical trials. Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, the president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), said that those creating clinical trials “need to cooperate early and partner early with communities where we’re trying to not just design trials, but design innovations, and we need to make sure that our innovation portfolios are looking across diverse needs, and not just trying to serve diverse patients at the end of the day.”

In that sense, McMurry-Heath said that there is a “false dichotomy” that “when it comes to improving health equity, it’s all about access to health insurance, which is critical,” but that “if everyone had immediate access to everything we have available to treat diseases, most of the diseases that affect communities of color would still not have an answer: We don’t have great solutions for heart disease or stroke, for diabetes, for sickle cell.”

“If we’re not designing with serving those populations in mind, we will not get to health equity,” McMurry-Heath said.

Meanwhile, focusing on building trust with underserved communities is critical. “Trust is such a big factor for all of us in health care, and there is more distrust among minority communities and among less empowered patients,” said Sylvana Sinha, founder and CEO of Praava Health, a startup based in Bangladesh, a country where “trust is an even bigger factor than it is in the United States due to the gaps in terms of the quality of care.” She suggests providers can “continue to try to raise awareness, continue to stay true to ourselves…stay true to the science.”

But there’s another obstacle in the pipeline that leaders need to think about addressing upstream: funding health care startups that operate in underserved populations.

“Most of the dramatic investment that’s gone into health care post-pandemic has been in the United States, and it’s been telemedicine and mental health, which are products that are serving privileged populations, to be frank,” Sinha said. (Praava Health is currently seeking new funding.) “The mental health products that are being developed are expensive, they’re not being made for the masses of the world. And so I have concerns around that.”

“I do think we have an opportunity, I think we’re talking about [equity in health care] more,” Sinha added, “and I hope that the tide will change.”

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