Supporter Spotlight: Patient Diversity Initiatives

CISCRP is developing a series of articles about initiatives from pharmaceutical companies to address racial inequities and health care disparities with a focus on clinical trial diversity.   

For our first Supporter Spotlight piece of the series, we feature two companies—Merck and Pfizer—our 2021 “Patient Diversity Campaign” editorial content providers.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness about the importance of clinical research. The pandemic has also placed a spotlight on racial inequalities within our U.S. health care system. Over this past year, we’ve seen many companies increase transparency by publishing clinical trial results summaries, hosting advisory boards, supporting mass media awareness-building campaigns, and collaborating with local communities.  

We met with colleagues from Merck and Pfizer to learn how they’re understanding critical barriers to participation and increasing health literacy among patients and the public.  

Here are three key insights from these two industry leaders that showcase their commitment to improving diversity and inclusion: 

Develop solutions that resonate among different stakeholders.  

“There are multiple barriers to diversity in clinical trials and multiple stakeholders who have the responsibility to address them,” shared Luther Clark, Deputy Chief Patient Officer at Merck. “We are strongly committed to conducting research that is safe and effective in all patients.” To demonstrate this commitment, Merck executes their clinical trials with a focus on meaningful patient and community engagement, addressing the social determinants of health, logistical and financial barriers, and minority investigator shortages.

One way Merck works to remove barriers and ensure equitable access to clinical trials is through heat map technology. This allows them to identify patients with the greatest disease disparity and need for medication. Adrelia Allen, Director of Clinical Trial Patient Diversity at Merck, shared the importance of this technology and of working closely with sites and community leaders. “[Prioritizing diversity and inclusion] is a part of the fabric of our corporate culture. It’s embedded into our clinical trial operations,” said Allen. 

At Pfizer, effective communication with community members is a priority. “Clinical trial accessibility starts with clinical trial awareness,” shared David Leventhal, Senior Director of Clinical Trial Experience at Pfizer. “There’s a difference between reading about clinical trials on the internet and really understanding a clinical trial as a care option.”  

Both Pfizer and Merck support CISCRP’s Perceptions & Insights bi-annual study to understand public and patient perceptions around trial participation and barriers. Both companies are writing full-page editorials about their commitment to achieving health equity in CISCRP’s Patient Diversity 2021 campaign.  

Learn about what matters most to patients and their families.  

Pfizer incorporates patient insights into their protocol designs and engages with patients and local advocacy groups. “We’ve learned that being a part of an alumni network is important to our participants, so we’ve expanded that around providing individual results, data return, and an opportunity to share stories,” said Leventhal. They also partner with local communities and work with advisory boards to ensure clear, consistent messaging.  

At Merck, organizing advisory panels, partnering with advocacy groups, and hosting forums helps gather direct input from patients. In addition, Merck is committed to improving health literacy around the world to advance health equity, impact population health outcomes, and drive efficiencies in health care systems. 

To develop best practices to increase diversity, Merck and Pfizer also work with major consortia, such as CISCRP’s AWARE Industry Consortium, PhRMA, the Diversity & Inclusion in Clinical Trials (DICT) Collaborative, and the Multi-Regional Clinical Trials Center of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard. 

Maintain relationships with local communities.  

“With educational awareness programs, we’re showing that we’re there to support communities,” said Allen. Merck has supported external grass-roots programs, such as CISCRP’s AWARE for All events and the Lazarex Cancer Center’s equitable access initiative. 

Clark added, “The first step is recognizing and overcoming mistrust, fear, and lack of comfort with the clinical trial process. Ultimately, it’s the patient who will make the decision about participation, but they’re influenced by people close to them—their families, friends, and the greater community.” 

Pfizer supports CISCRP’s AWARE for All programs and developed an FAQ on to increase transparency and address concerns among underserved communities. They develop their educational materials in partnership with academic centers and advocacy groups to build trust, cultivate strong collaborations, and ensure best practices in health literacy. Pfizer also partners with large health systems to avoid multiple data collection mechanisms and support interoperability.  

Taking the time to understand participation barriers and meet the needs of participants is an investment in the future. 

“It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” said Allen. “We’re willing to put forth the effort and resources to improve patient outcomes and achieve health equity for all.” To learn more about Merck’s commitment to diversity in clinical trials, click here. 

Tune in to the next article of the series where we’ll be profiling other companies!  

Author: Ellyn Getz, MPH, Associate Director, Business Development 

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