The Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation has been tackling health inequities around the world for 20 years, but nowhere has it come more quickly and sharply into focus than in the U.S. this year.
The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately marginalizing communities, vaccine trials that couldn’t recruit enough people of color, the murder of George Floyd in May and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement all at once shone a spotlight on the chronic problem in the U.S.
To help fight that problem, BMS in August pledged $300 million over the next five years, and this week, it earmarked $100 million of that sum for the Foundation and its partner National Medical Fellowships to build a program to train 250 new clinical investigators from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
The 250-person clinical trial investigators program will begin accepting applications in January, with candidates for the two-year program chosen by September. The first year is dedicated to training, while the second will pair them as mentors to minority medical students.
“What’s going to be successful for us is not that we’ve been able to train 250 diverse investigators—it really is putting in the metrics and the measurement to understand, 'What have these 250 diverse investigators done at the community level to increase patient participation in trials?'” John Damonti, president of the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, said.
“We all know that people have really strong empathy and support and can have a more open dialogue and trust with people who look like them, and that’s what we really need to try to get at,” he added.
The foundation also received an additional $50 million of the original allotment to spend in the U.S. on ongoing and new efforts. Already, $14 million has been allocated this year to new initiatives, including a program in Chicago with health education outreach in barber shops and beauty salons and another program that will be deployed in big cities to better diagnose prostate cancer in African-American men, Damonti said.
BMS isn’t alone in the industry in working to tackle inequities. Johnson & Johnson this week pledged $100 million over the next five years, earmarked to help communities and people of color, and made a commitment to increasing internal hiring of Black executives by 50%.
And earlier this year, Gilead Sciences teamed with Morehouse School of Medicine to sponsor research around demographic disparities in health. Roche’s Genentech, meanwhile, ran a survey that found wide-ranging disparities in healthcare experiences among Black, Latinx and other disadvantaged groups and is using that data to inform its efforts.
“People have come to the awareness this year that not only are these profound issues, but we need to do something about it. It’s not just Bristol Myers Squibb’s $300 million commitment, but also Microsoft and J.P. Morgan Chase and others,” Damonti said. "It’s heartening for me having worked on these issues with the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation for 20 years to see it now as a part of, 'How do we think about who we are as a company, and what do we look like as a company?'”