Perhaps more than anything, COVID-19 showed us the importance of health. It showed us that if you don’t have your health, nothing else matters — the global pandemic laid this simple truth bare. It also laid bare the inequities that exist in ensuring that health and wellness for all. The pandemic was a call to action for brands to do their part to accelerate health equity and ensure a world where everyone has a fair opportunity and access to health. In this discussion, sponsored by IPG Health, some of the most important names in tech and pharma shared their insights on these issues and more. Panelists included:

• Dr. Sommer Bazuro, chief medical officer, FCB Health

• Dr. Ivor Horn, director, health equity and social determinants of health, Google

• Rodrigo Moran, global head creative, WhatsApp

• Pat Setji, general manager, screening business unit, Exact Sciences

• Moderator: Shaheed Peera, global creative lead, FCB Health Europe

At the start of the discussion, Peera called the inequity of healthcare “arguably one of the biggest crises facing humanity.” He asked panelists how organizations are creating actionable differences and changes to make healthcare more accessible to all.

Bazuro stated that “as a global community, it’s up to us to be very focused on historical and contemporary injustices, and social, economic and logistical barriers that prevent every man and woman, regardless of their position in society, from reaching their full health potential.”

Panelists agreed that one key determinant of health is access to information, but said that organizations often fail to reach the patients that are most at risk. They discussed ways that platforms are ensuring that patients get the best and most accurate information and that underrepresented populations are included.

“We want to make sure that we’re providing authoritative evidence-based information in a way that people can receive it,” said Setji. “Whether it’s via text message, through a video, in partnership with an influencer, all of those ways matter.” She noted that Exact Sciences partnered with Jamie Foxx, Mel B and other influencers to create “campaigns that actually represent the communities we serve” with spokespeople that” look like the people we want to reach.”

The importance of the message and the medium

Using the right language is crucial to reaching the right audience. Panelists spoke of the importance of communicating in language laypeople can relate to.

“We are in the business of telling engaging, insightful stories,” said Bazuro. “The story we want to tell here is that patients and caregivers deserve the right to information on screening, diagnosis of their disease, the treatment plan and the prognosis in a way that they can understand it.”

Organizations should be focused on “making sure that messages are truthful, accurate, credible and make sure that folks like WhatsApp and Google can help us get there,” noted Setji.

Moran said that WhatsApp, a platform that was created for people without access to data communication, offers an audio voice message feature that is particularly popular in Brazil where a significant percent of the population can’t read or write. “That simple feature allows people to communicate and have access to information,” he said.

Combating misinformation is just as important as providing accurate information. Moran explained how a simple tweak to WhatsApp is helping to curb misinformation. The platform’s Check it Before You Share It campaign “gave people tools to check information before they share,” he said Moran.

Google worked diligently during the pandemic to limit misinformation by driving people to the WHO website. Horn explained that “75% of people go to the internet for health information, so we wanted to make sure we were raising up authoritative information.”

When technology is a barrier

Getting information to the right patient populations is really a matter of life and death. Setji noted that in the cancer diagnostics field, “screening and early detection saves lives.”  Yet technology can be a barrier when trying to reach underserved populations.

While technology can enhance the healthcare experience in many ways, “all the tech in the world is not going to create less health inequity, it’s actually driving a further gap between affluent, well-educated, commercially insured patients and at-risk patients,” said Bazuro.

“Technology companies make a lot of mistakes when they try to improve the technology without thinking about the people who need it most,” said Moran.

Horn cited an example of how people in marginalized communities remained underserved even though vaccines were available in their communities because they lacked access to a computer to register online. “It’s an example of where we missed the mark, because we thought technology was the be-all-and-end-all and it was just a piece of the puzzle,” she said.

Exact Sciences faces challenges getting its Cologuard cancer screening test into the hands of patients who “have an unstable address, live out of their car, live in communities where the kits would be swiped or in rural communities that are hard to reach,” said Setji.

“Our customer care center is very effective at using emails and text messaging, but not everyone has text messaging and email,” she added. The company offers telephone call service 24 hours, seven days a week, but Setji admits “that’s not going to always work either.”

Horn added that when crafting messaging, it’s important for organizations to “meet people where they are on their journey. We know people go to the internet to search for health information. At the same time, we have over 150 million people in the U.S. who are on Medicaid or Medicare. How many people do you think who are Googlers actually have had experience in being on Medicaid?” she asked.

Clinical trials

Another key area of concern is the underrepresentation of minority populations in clinical trials. “Innovation begins in the clinical trial space. To exclude Black and Hispanic patients from that level of innovation is unconscionable,” said Bazuro. “We’re also collecting inaccurate data because we are leaving out huge swaths of the population. Drugs are coming on the market, treatments are coming on the market, and we’ve left out the people who are most affected. It’s both a moral and a scientific issue.”

Bazuro’s team at FCB Health launched The Trial for #ClinicalEquality awareness campaign in 2020, during the height of the pandemic, at the intersection of healthcare disparities, accurate scientific and medical information. “We decided that, instead of being an academic, cloistered conversation, we would take it to the general public to demand change,” she said.

To generate more interest and recruit more patients from underserved communities, organizations need to make more targeted efforts. Bazuro said it’s a myth that minority populations have a global hesitancy to be part of clinical trials. “If it isn’t presented to you in a way that you can digest, you’re not going to want to participate in the clinical trial,” she said.

Partnering with people with “lived experience who can tell their stories is vital to building trust,” added Horn. WhatsApp is launching community-based chats to facilitate those important discussions.

“The deeper we go into the communities, the better,” said Setji. “We are going to where the people live, to health fairs, food banks, barbershops, and we’re seeing results. On average, 3% of African Americans are enrolled in clinical trials. Our aspirational goal was 25% enrollment in minority populations, and we’re already in double digits for both the Black and Latino population.”

Call to action

To truly effect change, organizations need to utilize all methods available to them. “Once upon a time, women were excluded from clinical trials, and it took legislation to bring us to that level of equity,” said Bazuro. “It’s time to have equal representation in clinical trials so we are making clinical conclusions based on appropriate data. Right now we’re not doing that. It’s time to get to work.”