Facing Health Disparities Head On: An Industry-Wide Responsibility

Author: Awny Farajallah, Head, Global Medical Affairs Oncology | Published: Feb 02 2022
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Health inequity has been a longstanding global dilemma – one that I personally feel compelled to help address, especially in oncology. In fact, one of the reasons why I decided to join Takeda Oncology was the company’s commitment to improving health equity, not just for patients in the U.S. or Europe, but truly worldwide.

Coming from a background of treating patients with AIDS and other globally prevalent infectious diseases, it was important to me that the company I worked for prioritized health equity. When I interviewed with Takeda’s CEO, Christophe Weber, I asked how Takeda enables patient access to medicines outside of the “Western World.” If a disease is much more common in a third-world country, what measures will the company take to overcome challenges and ensure that patients can access the therapies that may save their lives? His answer was simple: we are committed to providing patients the medicine they need, wherever they may be. While every country is different, and each approach must be appropriately tailored, Takeda prioritizes working with distributors and third parties that allow us to deliver medicines where and when they are most needed.

Today, people around the world continue to face a complex blend of interconnected threats to their health and well-being – many of which are rooted in social, political, economic and gender inequalities, among other determinants of health – that can result in poor outcomes.1 Pharmaceutical, academic and biotech leaders have a responsibility to work together and identify solutions that will address the uneven distribution of and access to health resources, just as we collaborate to expedite and innovate discovery and development of new treatments.

Here are just a few incremental steps we can take to begin addressing such disparities:

1. Expand Provider Education

When a person is diagnosed with cancer, it’s imperative that they have a team of healthcare providers that can develop an individualized treatment plan, as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. To provide effective care, providers need to know the information they should be asking of each patient. Beyond their diagnosis and health history, we should learn where people live, how they live, their values, beliefs and more to effectively engage and provide the best customized care. In my experience, grassroot efforts – visiting underserved communities and working with community leaders, local health departments and advocacy organizations directly – to learn how people live and what they need is one way to help expand knowledge for providers and many other stakeholders within the care continuum to ultimately improve outcomes for patients.

2. Think and Act Globally

Health disparities aren’t just happening in a single country or region – they’re present in communities across the globe. For example, in the U.S., the five-year survival rate for cervical cancer is 71% for White women and just 58% for Black women. However, more than 90% of cervical cancer mortality occurs in low- and middle-income countries.2 The need is omnipresent, but efforts that may aid one country or region might not have the same impact in others. In order to address care gaps, it is critical we collaborate with external partners and tailor patient engagement and support programs to meet the nuanced needs of every region.

To illustrate, I’ve seen first-hand how Takeda Oncology’s sponsorship of programs and partners like Cancer Advocacy and Patient Education (CAPE) and CONQUER: The Patient Voice can help us promote building community capacity to bridge the gap in reaching underserved communities in the U.S. On a global scale, we’ve worked with our Center for Health Equity and Patient Affairs to empower communities in over 30 low- and middle-income countries across Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and Southeast Asia to sustainably address health inequities in cancer care by providing much needed equipment, hands-on training and mentoring.

3. Build Community Trust to Help Diversify Clinical Trials

Too many clinical trials do not accurately represent patient populations. Particularly within oncology, since many cancers have higher rates among minority groups, such as multiple myeloma, cervical and prostate cancers, more diverse clinical trial representation is critical to help ensure the immunology of a disease is accurately reflected in the drugs we develop. It’s these same groups of people that have historically had a lack of trust in the healthcare system and a particular disinterest in enrolling in clinical trials – and not without good reason. To increase representation in clinical trials, we know we have to build trust within communities who have been historically mistreated. Only then will we be able to decrease avoidance of treatment and improve outcomes.

I’m proud of the efforts Takeda Oncology has taken to prioritize enrollment that is more representative of the U.S. population through engagement with community sites, like in our US MM-6 study in multiple myeloma patients. Additionally, our African Consortium for Cancer Clinical Trials (AC3T) program has helped increase access to new and established cancer medicines and technologies through clinical trials and identify and empower African cancer centers and hospitals to conduct and participate in cancer clinical trials. We are actively applying our learnings from these programs so we can continue to build community trust.

Health inequity in oncology is a global issue that cannot be addressed by any one person or company alone. Fortunately, we have science as a powerful tool that can inform our decision making, especially when it comes to mining for the data and insights that will help us better understand a patient’s environment and background.

I’ve seen how much can be achieved in less than one year in my role at Takeda Oncology. I’m encouraged by our progress but I’m most looking forward to what we can accomplish in the future if we, as an industry, work together to close the care gap for communities around the world.


References

1 World Health Organization (WHO). Some signs of recovery emerging but major efforts required to restore and strengthen health services. https://www.who.int/news/item/23-04-2021-covid-19-continues-to-disrupt-essential-health-services-in-90-of-countries. Accessed January 12, 2022.

2 Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). Closing the gap in cancer care. https://www.worldcancerday.org/close-care-gap. Accessed January 18, 2022.