Johnson & Johnson is re-upping its commitment to addressing health inequities as the pandemic lays bare long-standing divisions. It’s pledged $100 million over the next five years, earmarked to help communities and people of color.
The pledge comes along with a greater societal acknowledgment of racial inequality across healthcare that’s been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic—and the ensuing economic hardships—against a backdrop of racial and social injustice. Bristol Myers Squibb in August pledged $300 million in its own five-year commitment.
Even as J&J works to ready its own COVID-19 vaccine, it recognizes those concurrent issues, Micheal Sneed, J&J’s executive VP, global corporate affairs and chief communication officer, said.
“We’re really focused on health for everybody, but that can’t start until there is equity for all,” he said. “We recognize this is a long-term problem and not something only Johnson & Johnson can do. But we do think this announcement will bring focus to this area, increase collaboration and ultimately provide the basis for action.”
J&J’s efforts will be concentrated in three areas: working in local communities, expanding existing partnerships and adding new ones, and increasing its own efforts to hire and promote people of color to the manager level and above.
An example of the community work will be growing J&J’s support of mobile health clinics for communities of color. The clinics are already delivering COVID-19 testing, for instance, along with information about the importance of clinical trial inclusion and vaccines. J&J also supports maternal health equity programs for women of color and belongs to the Equitable Maternal Health Coalition, which recently petitioned Congress to address the impact COVID-19 may have on maternal mortality.
Its internal hiring effort is targeting a 50% increase in leadership roles. It will include a revamp of J&J human resources and the drugmaker’s hiring policies, as well as transparent reporting so others can follow the company’s progress. Currently, 6% to 7% of J&J vice presidents—and about the same number of manager-level employees—are Black, Sneed said.
J&J recently partnered with the Executive Leadership Council, a group of Black C-suite executives working to promote opportunities and development, to offer scholarships to medical students of color who want to work in communities of color.
“We know people who live in these communities are much more likely to access the healthcare system when they see people who look like them,” Sneed said.
J&J’s pledge comes amid growing acknowledgment of the problem of racism in healthcare. Monday, the American Medical Association officially declared racism as an “urgent public health threat” and laid out plans to encourage equity in medicine and public health while creating pathways for truth, healing and reconciliation.
“We recognize there is a new sense of urgency and we want to be at the front of the line, quite honestly, in leading that urgency and making concrete plans and taking concrete actions that have an impact,” Sneed said.
Several other Big Pharma companies have this year launched their own efforts to combat racism and health inequities as well. Bristol Myers Squibb’s $300 million, five-year pledge includes hiring more people of color, increasing clinical trial diversity and raising disease awareness.
Gilead Sciences, meanwhile, is sponsoring the Morehouse School of Medicine’s research around demographic disparities in health. Roche’s Genentech, for its part, ran a survey that found wide-ranging disparities in healthcare experiences among Black, Latinx and other disadvantaged groups and is using that data to inform its efforts.
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