For healthcare marketers in the US, the biggest events of 2020 – the pandemic and the nationwide reckoning with systemic racism – have intertwined in ways that put the onus on them to work towards solving the health disparities that particularly affect BIPOC communities. As Amy Gómez, SVP/ Diversity Strategy at healthcare agency Klick Health writes, the stakes for not doing so are simply too high.

This article is part of the May 2021 Spotlight US series, "How the pandemic has changed US healthcare marketing." Read more

Healthcare marketers are facing a momentous inflection point on the heels of the annus horribilis of 2020.

We are not the only group of marketers called on to change in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and 2020’s thunderous and multi-voiced call for social and racial equity. However, our responsibility is significantly greater considering the year’s unprecedented public recognition of the health disparities that affect BIPOC communities – now 40% of the US population and soon to be the majority – due to untold years of unchecked structural racism. The exclusion of underserved populations from clinical trials is simply one example of this. In addition, healthcare marketers work in an industry where our marketing efforts can help save lives – and that comes with a heightened responsibility to correct historic exclusions.

The good news is that life sciences companies and their marketing partners have vowed to do better. The optimists – and I count myself in their ranks – hope that things don’t revert to business as usual. However, history tells us that this scenario is all too possible. But the course of history can be changed, and it is critical for us to embrace that change.

In 2020, the world was galvanized by the dual forces of a pandemic that disproportionately sickened and killed people of color and the national protests for racial equity in the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. One result was an unprecedented call to address health inequities caused by decades – even centuries – of institutional racism. Commitments were made, new roles were established to offer leadership in health equity and community wellness, and millions of dollars were committed to help solve health disparities and racism: To name just two: Bristol-Myers Squibb pledged $300 million to address racial inequality in healthcare and AbbVie pledged $50 million to promote health equity and create educational and workforce development opportunities.

Today, before any significant progress is made, another threat looms – an epidemic of apathy and inertia. As millions are vaccinated and life returns to ‘normal’, the problems that seemed so urgent risk getting put on the back burner.

What does the past tell us about the life sciences industry’s ability to make sustained, significant progress on issues affecting the health of underserved populations? In 1979 – some 42 years ago – the US federal government’s Belmont Report identified minority populations as vulnerable research participants and acknowledged that many vulnerable groups may be excluded from research. The under-representation of people of color has since become common knowledge in the industry, but according to the FDA’s 2020 Drug Trials Snapshot Report, the needle has not moved significantly. Latinos represent 18% of the population but only 11% of clinical trial participants. Black Americans comprise nearly 14% of the population but only 8% of trial participants. Doing things differently requires change. Pursuing health equity demands change. The nexus of change is RIGHT NOW. But change entails risk, so the leadership of life sciences, medical institutions and the marketing organizations that support them will need to resist the risk-averse behavior sometimes demonstrated in the past. It will not be easy, but meaningful change never is.

Pursuing health equity also requires recasting some of the decision-makers to include members of historically underrepresented groups. Everyone celebrates diversity in the abstract, but the very difficult work of combatting ingrained unconscious biases and revamping the mechanisms by which leaders are identified, recruited and promoted can easily stall as challenges emerge.

We must and can do better. The deep disparities that COVID made painfully obvious are unfair and remediable - if the will is there. The World Health Organization says, “Pursuing health equity means striving for the highest possible standard of health for all people and giving special attention to the needs of those at greatest risk of poor health, based on social conditions.” Public sector institutions in the US have taken a stance – the US Centers for Disease Control has declared racism a serious public threat and addressing that threat, says CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, has ‘got to be part of what everybody is doing.”

This is just as true for healthcare marketing. Historically, marketers – if they have acknowledged BIPOC and LGBTQ+ patients at all – have relied on executional elements like casting, translation and media buys. This must be replaced with a focus on understanding the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of underserved segments and reaching them through insight-driven strategic communications. The same is true for payers, who have a vested interest in improving population health management, and have the opportunity to do so by elevating the relevance and impact of their efforts through integration of cross-cultural intelligence and cross-cultural marketing best practices.

The consumer segments that have been underserved by the life sciences and medical establishment and long overlooked by healthcare marketers are the segments that collectively will make up the majority of the US population in the near future. If healthcare marketers don’t do the heavy lifting required to leave behind ‘business as usual’ and make a concerted effort to understand underserved patients and caregivers and communicate with them through authentic messaging and channels, our industry will become irrelevant in the New Majority America. We cannot let this happen. The stakes are simply too high.