The industry's cultural deficit

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Innovative chemical compounds have improved the quality and longevity of the lives of many Americans. Many diseases that were once a death sentence are now treatable. However, there is a growing body of overwhelming evidence that not all Americans enjoy the benefits of biomedical research and high-tech care equally. Racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse US population segments suffer disproportionately from chronic disease and premature death, even among the middle class and insured.

The data of pervasive and persistent racial and ethnic health disparities are undisputed. In 1985, the groundbreaking Heckler Report on Minority Health documented significant disparities in burden of illness and mortality. In 2002, National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine landmark Unequal Treatment Report found profound differences in the quality of care of insured diverse patients. The 2003, 2005 and 2008 National Healthcare Disparities Reports issued by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality monitor and synthesize the evidence of the existence of health disparities among US racial and ethnic groups. As a major player in the healthcare industry, one would think that this compelling data would drive a moral imperative in the pharma industry to depart from a business-as-usual development of strategic plans and promotional campaigns, especially those companies that espouse patient-centered care, personalized medicine and  individualized treatment.

Dramatic demographic shifts in the US population are fueling the national racial health disparities dialogue. So-called ethnic “niche” markets have become “minority-majority” markets. So-called ethnic “sub-populations” have become the “new mainstream” in metropolitan statistical areas. Healthcare reform will result in a flood of some 31 million new insurance members—more than half of whom are in communities of color—who will have access to services for the first time.

It has taken the industry almost 20 years for multicultural initiatives to move beyond benign neglect to a place, albeit tenuous, on the agenda of brand managers.  It is shocking that there still exists a vast cultural deficit among many industry leaders and a majority of senior marketing executives. In spite of widespread news coverage, industry leaders have little or no knowledge of and the reasons for racial and ethnic health disparities. It is baffling that there has been no programmatic response from the industry in view of legislative mandates in eight states requiring cultural competency training as a condition of licensure for physicians. It is surprising that brand teams either ignore business opportunities in ethnic markets or are stuck in a short-term pilot market mentality rather than a long-term market development mindset to build corporate and brand equity in new audiences.

Effective outreach to diverse segments and the development of culturally relevant patient education materials for healthcare professionals who treat them is the new frontier for growth for the industry. It is time for the industry to fulfill its corporate responsibility as a key stakeholder in the elimination of health disparities in the communities where it does business. The success of the industry in multicultural markets will depend upon the innovative spirit and vision of informed industry leaders and senior executives. It is not only the right thing to do, but it makes good business sense.  

Sheila L. Thorne is president & CEO of Multicultural Healthcare Marketing Group
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