Johnson & Johnson goes local to help Black, Hispanic patients left behind by health inequality

The J&J Health Equity Innovation Challenge sees the pharma asking six cities that suffer from health inequality within the Black and Hispanic communities for ideas to help tackle the problem. (Johnson & Johnson)

When it comes to health equity, Johnson & Johnson believes in going local for advice. The pharma’s latest innovation challenge bears that out by focusing on six cities—and by seeking suggestions directly from the people healthcare is leaving behind.

The Health Equity Innovation Challenge is set to start in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City and Philadelphia, all areas that suffer extreme health inequality within the Black and Hispanic communities.

The challenge is an open call to these communities to submit ideas to help open up access to quality care, improve diversity in science, push for more trustworthy community-based healthcare and prevent and treat illnesses that disproportionately affect them.

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“We may not always know what the best solution is—people who live in those communities, who've lived their entire lives as part of those communities, are better placed to actually identify what those problems are to come up with solutions,” said Seema Kumar, J&J’s global head, office of innovation, global health and scientific engagement.

“The problem has always been there, but they haven't had the access to resources, the access to capital, the access to mentorship, the access to a big company like Johnson and Johnson’s expertise.”

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The deadline is Nov. 12, and the first round of applications will be vetted by Tulane University faculty, who will narrow the list down to about 50 submissions. In the next round, national and local health experts from a mix of public health areas will choose the winners.

There is a total pot of $1 million, and each winning idea can receive up to $75,000 in funding. There isn’t a set amount of winners; it’s really about using that total amount to fund as many great ideas as possible.

The challenge is part of J&J’s bigger pledge of $100 million for communities of color over the next five years.

The pharma’s latest innovation challenge takes its cue not from previous U.S. quick-fire challenges but more from a model the company has used in Africa in the past. There, the pharma has asked for local suggestions about what needs to be done.

After seeing the effects of COVID-19 on the Black and Hispanic communities and the activism after the murder of George Floyd, pharma companies have been upping the ante to tackle systemic racism in healthcare. There is a concerted effort across the field to try to right or at least level the past wrongs.

“Systemic racism is actually, in our mind, a public health issue,” Kumar said.

And more than just health: J&J and Kumar have a bigger goal to stimulate entrepreneurship and more.

“(It’s about) creating a cadre of local empowered leaders in which entrepreneurship, innovation and empowerment in communities of color become part of the DNA and create a movement for making change beyond health inequity," Kumar said. The effort could "hopefully have a snowball effect of solving for the big challenges that we have in the world.”