Bristol Myers Squibb takes on racial inequality with $300M pledge to up diversity, improve healthcare access

Diverse concept hands on top of one another
Bristol Myers Squibb said it would commit $300 million over the next five years to address racial disparities in healthcare. (Shutterstock)

The recent death of George Floyd has set off a broad discussion around racism and the different forms of inequality people of color experience in the U.S. One of the disparities lies in healthcare, and a local Big Pharma company is making a multimillion-dollar investment to address the problem.

Bristol Myers Squibb said it would commit $300 million over the next five years to address health disparities across several areas, including hiring more people of color, increasing clinical trial diversity, as well as raising disease awareness and improving healthcare access among medically underserved populations—not just in the U.S., but globally.

“Now more than ever, we recognize the urgent need to do more to address serious gaps in care among the underserved in communities around the world,” BMS CEO Giovanni Caforio said in a statement on Wednesday.

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Specifically, Bristol will work to expand the diversity of its workforce, including in leadership roles “to ensure it reflects the evolving demographics of the patients the company serves,” it said. In the U.S., the company aims to double executive roles for Black and Latinx staffers by 2022.

Many drugmakers have top exec roles focused on diversity. Alexion Pharmaceuticals recently became the latest to create a chief diversity officer position among its top ranks.

As for assistance with access to BMS drugs, the company said it would accelerate dispersing information about its patient support programs, which help cover drug costs for qualified patients. The company recently expanded that initiative to include U.S. patients who lost their health insurance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. BMS will also make targeted efforts to raise disease awareness.

RELATED: Alexion hires first chief diversity officer, following pharma peers and social sentiment

Improving clinical trial diversity is another key component in BMS’ commitments. The goal is two-pronged: Through the nonprofit Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, the company will train and develop 250 new racially and ethnically diverse clinical investigators; and it plans to enroll more minority participants in studies.

Clinical trials have long been criticized for inadequate inclusion of minority patients even though they may be disproportionally affected by the disease a drug is being tested in. According to the FDA’s most recent Drug Trials Snapshots Report for 2019, in the clinical trials supporting the approvals of the 48 novel drugs the agency approved in 2019, 9% participants were Black people, 9% were Asian and 18% were Hispanic.

The two approaches are correlated, Merck & Co. CEO Ken Frazier—the only Black CEO of a Big Pharma company—said during a panel discussion about racial inequality in cancer research at the American Association for Cancer Research virtual annual meeting.

“Community engagement has been especially helpful to increase awareness and education. It’s really critical to build trust and help people regarding the importance and benefits of clinical trials,” Frazier said. “When people don’t see people like them conducting these trials, they’re not so sure whether we’re doing something for them or doing something to them.”

RELATED: Biopharma CEOs call for action on systemic racism—across America and in their own ranks

And that question ties back to a company’s internal diversity. Greater diversity at drugmakers and medical institutions can help ensure that patients of all races and ethnicities are not left out in the drug development process, Levi Garraway, chief medical officer at Roche and Genentech, said during the panel. BMS, Roche and Merck all have strong presences in the cancer field.

Apart from driving the diversity of clinical trials and its internal workforce, BMS also pledges to spend $1 billion globally by 2025 with Black and other “diverse-owned” suppliers. Plus, the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation will double-match the amount U.S. employees donate to organizations that fight health disparities and discrimination.

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