Guest Column | October 20, 2021

How To Create A Pathway For Diversity In Medtech

By Kenita Barrow, Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc.

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When different perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds come together, it sparks innovation that can drive significant technological advancement. The most diverse companies are now more likely to outperform their less diverse peers.1 Beyond company performance, ensuring adequate representation throughout the product development pipeline leads to better-tailored treatment outcomes and care for patients in underserved and underrepresented communities. The criticality of improving treatment outcomes for these populations has led to a need to bring together relevant stakeholders (e.g., payors, academia, government, healthcare professionals, patient advocacy groups, and patients) using platforms such as the MedTech Color Collaborative to develop best practices, education, and awareness aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion within product development and clinical research. This will proactively further advancements for racial and ethnic minority populations and address health inequities.

Engage At The Collegiate Level

One of the main areas where change is greatly needed is the recruitment and retention of diverse individuals within medtech organizations. Diverse individuals are often not provided exposure or information about the various roles that exist in medtech during their collegiate experiences. Colleges and universities have made great strides in creating programs focused on advancing individuals of color in the life sciences.

I myself benefited from such a program as a member of one of the cohorts of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program. The program, founded by the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Foundation, focuses on increasing diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. A key component of the program that prepares students to pursue advanced degrees and obtain successful careers in STEM involves participation throughout their academic tenure in internships and externships. There remain opportunities for medtech companies to address recruitment by creating impactful collaborative experiences with academic institutions, further exposing the offerings of the industry to undergraduate students participating in these programs.

The creation of programs such as the one described above that partner with the medtech industry would allow students to gain exposure to premarket development plans, including principal investigator interactions and early-stage advisory boards, and post-market strategies such as the development of marketing materials and engagement with key opinion leaders.

Participation in these activities allows diverse students to gain an understanding of the impact their voice and perspective can have when they are in the room. Providing emerging graduates with this experience increases the likelihood that these students will pursue careers in medtech. Additionally, even for those who may not choose to have a career in medtech directly, it highlights the areas and spaces where they can engage with the industry as an external party and still make a difference. As an added step, organizations can further demonstrate their commitment to diversity by providing career opportunities for individuals in these programs who excel in the work performed during their internships and externships.

Such collaboration can continue beyond the undergraduate space. An example currently underway at Otsuka involves the Legal Affairs team. Our legal group is facilitating a diversity accelerator secondee program for firm counsel. The program began through negotiations with three outside counsel firms to bring secondees in-house at Otsuka for a period of up to six months. The secondees have the opportunity to work in several different legal practice groups, network with attorneys throughout the organization, and interact directly with business teams and executive leaders. Upon their return to their firms, the secondees are given significant career advancement opportunities such as origination credit or participation in mentorship and leadership programs. The secondee program brings additional perspectives to legal decision-making across the organization and demonstrates Otsuka’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion both internally and externally.

Make Meaningful Impacts

I have seen first-hand how having diverse perspectives in the room positively impacts all stages of the processes involved in the product development life cycle.

For example, it is essential to understand that African Americans are generally represented as a subset of Blacks when presenting statistics related to race and ethnicity. The definition of Blacks can have a global connotation encompassing, but not limited to, individuals such as South Americans, West Indians, Latin Americans, and Africans. However, the definition of African Americans is often defined as Americans with African ancestry. Definitions for these groups are often misunderstood or misrepresented, yet these definitions are vital when examining how a product will or will not impact a sub-population. Highlighting this distinction is crucial for representing the facts from a scientific perspective and demonstrating that an organization accurately understands the communities of the patients it serves.

Another example that often arises in the product development life cycle involves access-related issues. Considerations such as the location of clinical trials, provisions for trial participants to travel, and how best to advertise for study recruitment all need to be determined as part of the strategy for product development.  When diverse voices are missing from the strategic planning table, the industry can overlook critical conversations examining the impact these determinations can have and, as a result, representation from underserved and underrepresented communities can be lacking.

Other issues around access revolve around what is needed to utilize a product successfully. An increasingly relevant example presents itself with the evolution of product development involving software applications. One simple question that should be asked is whether all participants will have access to smartphones or any other technology, if required, to utilize the software application as intended. Such components are often taken for granted but can become a barrier to product use, further demonstrating health inequities for underrepresented populations.

Recognizing these critical nuances and taking steps to increase diversity at all levels of medtech organizations will help tremendously in bridging the gaps and lack of trust that we see between industry and underserved communities.

Medtech companies must also participate in activities that reflect the diverse communities of both their employees and the patients they serve. Companies can achieve this by being intentional in their external activities.

Prioritizing participation in patient advocacy or other volunteer opportunities that include organizations representing underserved and underrepresented communities is essential. Ensuring these communities are represented when providing sponsorships and donations is equally important. Taking these additional steps will further highlight the renewed commitment that the medtech industry has to diversity, forging a defined pathway toward increased inclusion.

About The Author:

Kenita Barrow is executive director, deputy general counsel for Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. Outside of her legal role, Kenita donates time to STEM programs for young women and to initiatives working to increase diversity in all areas of clinical research. She is a member of the executive planning committee for the MedTech Color Collaborative and also serves as a member and past chair of the Montgomery County Ethics Commission in Maryland. Kenita has a J.D. from Vanderbilt University and a B.S. in biomedical ethics (biology/sociology/philosophy) from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Kenita has also completed graduate work in the Pharmacology and Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University.