During the past two years, America has undergone a critical reexamination of its racial past and institutional flaws. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests that arose following the killing of George Floyd, the nation has seen racial inequity on full display. 

In the wake of this reckoning, healthcare leaders and organizations have pledged to do more to address inequality in the industry and promote diversity, equity and inclusion. A 2021 WorldatWork survey found that more than 80% of organizations have enacted DE&I initiatives, but that there remains room for improvement.

With Juneteenth approaching, MM+M spoke with three Black leaders to discuss what progress has been made on the DE&I front, what difficult conversations need to occur in the future and how healthcare marketers can address the racial inequities that exist in the current system.

Tayla Mahmud, EVP of health equity and multicultural strategy at M Booth Health, noted that the issues of DE&I and health equity often get conflated — and that they should be addressed as separate concepts. 

She noted that many companies began their DE&I journey within the past two years and, as a result, are at different places in their progression. The problem: While these efforts have been incremental, they may have been siloed.

“At our organization, there’s a recognition that DE&I is bigger than one person or one role,” Mahmud said. “We’re building an ecosystem of leaders to move those efforts forward.”

One area of particular concern is the diversity of clinical trial participants. There are risks to underrepresenting various groups, including skewed results due to the composition of patient populations and diminished trust in makers of medicines.

To address this challenge, PhRMA and its member companies adopted industry-wide principles on clinical trial diversity in April 2021. Mahmud nonetheless believes that drugmakers need to be held accountable for their commitments.  

“Sometimes our inherent patterns, practices and designs of things that have worked in the past may need to be broken and thought through the lens of those who are impacted,” she explained. “For example, it can be easier to go faster into the places, partners and sites that you are familiar with to get these clinical studies done for the greater good. But then who are you leaving behind?”

Representation is a key element of evolving DE&I dynamics, according to Sheila Talton, CEO of Gray Matter Analytics.

Talton believes that healthcare leaders should be “bolder” in their hiring practices. She added that many companies may not realize that people of color benefit from sponsorship or mentorship to land positions that give them the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder.

“I was fortunate in my career, because that’s not what happened to me. But if you don’t have senior executives that are people of color, you are usually not going to keep the ones that you recruit from the bottom,” Talton said. “You’ve got to be willing, when you see the skill and the talent, to move them up a couple of levels.”

Talton also noted that, as the Great Resignation continues to impact the labor market, workers from underrepresented communities will be more likely to look for other job prospects if there isn’t a clear career trajectory.

Still, she remains optimistic. “Because of the alignment around the social determinants of health on the clinical side, we’re going to make significant strides,” she continued. “On the administrative side, we’re still going to have some challenges because the pool of diverse candidates is only so big. Because of that, organizations are just going to keep swapping workers from one to the next instead of developing and grooming new talent.”

One of the most effective ways that healthcare brands can live up to their DE&I commitments is to view themselves through the patients they serve, according to Funmi Olosunde, VP and director of project management at Razorfish Health.

Olosunde noted that ignorance among healthcare professionals doesn’t require malicious intent to be harmful to patients. A study published in the mid-2010s found that 40% of first- and second-year medical students thought that Black patients had thicker skin than white patients, meaning they were more likely to rate pain as less severe.

It’s critical for marketers to understand what it’s like to be ignored or disbelieved in a clinical setting, Olosunde said, and thread that experience into marketing and advertising. 

“If HCPs are more educated about their patient populations and the nuances around what they might be worried about, it will change the dynamic in the conversation and ultimately in the treatment,” she stressed. 

The number of women and people of color entering medical schools is increasing, Olosunde noted, which gives her hope for the future of care delivery. But she believes it is incumbent upon the healthcare marketing sector to support this emerging dynamic by producing assets that help doctors have more genuine conversations with their patients. 

Olosunde urged her peers to not be “afraid to be wrong” as well as to learn from their mistakes.

“You can be incorrect or inexact, but if you come to it with a spirit of humility and from a place of wanting to understand, more often than not somebody’s going to meet you and help to educate you,” Olosunde said. “That shouldn’t be the responsibility of these underrepresented communities, but usually people will choose to help educate because it lifts everybody else up.”