Divergent CRO

Although DEI efforts have ramped up, the industry is still searching for proven ways to get results.

By: Alexandra Pecci • Published June 28, 2023

Court Horncastle, senior vice president and business unit head of the anti-infective and respiratory team at GSK in the United States, understands the incredible value of diverse teams.

As a U.S. Army Armor Officer leading a tank platoon through the desert in the early 1990s in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Horncastle’s first tank crew was a living, breathing example of the power and benefits of diversity. Horncastle hailed from the New York City suburbs; his gunner grew up in Puerto Rico; his driver was a “farm boy from Kansas” who’d never left his county before joining the army; and his loader grew up in Compton outside Los Angeles. They had different levels of education and wildly different upbringings and backgrounds.

“You couldn’t have taken four more different people and thrown us all together inside a tank where we lived sometimes for weeks, months at a time,” he said.

They also had different worldviews, which meant they could tackle a problem from every angle.

“We were incredibly effective because we were incredibly different,” he said. “Whatever problem or challenge or opportunity that we came across, we had a huge variance in potential solutions because we all started from a different way of problem-solving based on our backgrounds and our experiences.”

Like every industry, pharma and biotech is focused on DEI for many reasons.

“I think diversity, equity and inclusion is incredibly important because I think it’s the right thing to do,” Horncastle said. “I also simultaneously think of DEI as a competitive advantage that helps me within the marketplace.”

“We have an overarching DEI scorecard to monitor metrics and progress across the company, including an area that specifically measures our improvements in clinical trial diversity.”

Melaina Boyce

Head of in-country clinical study operations in the U.S., Canada and Latin America, EMD Serono

Unlike other industries, though, the way life sciences companies need to tackle DEI is twofold. Not only are they working on it internally, with their own employees, but they also must work on it externally, by recruiting more diverse groups of patients for clinical trials.

And despite the increased attention on DEI, a report from earlier this year revealed that diversity in clinical trials has actually decreased in recent years. Here are some of the ways companies are refining DEI strategies in the workplace and for patients.

Partnerships and accountability

With the FDA calling for concrete diversity plans and goals in clinical trials, companies are taking action.

“To reach adequate levels of clinical trial diversity, the responsibility lies within the biopharma industry to raise the expectation that DEI is necessary for improved patient outcomes across all therapeutic areas,” said Melaina Boyce, head of in-country clinical study operations in the U.S., Canada and Latin America at EMD Serono, a biopharma company that specializes in infertility, multiple sclerosis and oncology.

For instance, EMD Serono established an internal Diversity and Equity in Clinical Trials Working Group that “created a template to help detail diversity plans when engaging with the FDA about our priority programs,” Boyce said. The template shows the company’s work in understanding underrepresented populations and includes details about how the company plans to attract, recruit and retain these patient populations.

One strategy is partnering with healthcare professionals and community groups.

“Currently, we’re working with trusted partners in the communities,” Boyce said. “Many of these partners — ranging from advocacy groups, to nonprofits, to networks — already have trusting relationships with these audiences, and they can help build a bridge to improve trust and access to these clinical trials through bi-directional communication.”

Other companies are taking a similar approach. For instance, Amgen is funding a nearly $1 million pilot program with The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network to test a trial eligibility screening intervention intended to increase and diversify patient enrollment in cancer clinical trials. And the Digital Medicine Society launched in February a suite of free resources to advance DEI in digitized clinical trials.

Companies are also holding themselves accountable internally.

“We have put an overarching DEI scorecard in place to monitor metrics and progress across the company, including an area that specifically measures our improvements in clinical trial diversity,” Boyce said. “The scorecard has high visibility within the organization, as global senior leaders evaluate the company’s progress on all relevant DEI items annually. Additionally, the scorecard outlines areas that require action to ensure we’re holding ourselves accountable to the standards we’ve set.”

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) is among the organizations focusing on the workforce side. According to interim CEO Rachel King, they’ve just hired a new chief human resources officer, and one of his tasks is to help think through how BIO can help its members with DEI efforts. Although they’ve already started benchmarking around best practices, King said she thinks “there’s a lot more” that could be done and they’re “in the process of defining that.”

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