In 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed a sample of cancerous cells from a woman named Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. This sample led to medical research that fueled the creation of the polio vaccine, HIV and AIDS medications, and more recently, COVID-19 vaccines. Lacks’ family wasn’t made aware of her contribution until decades later. 
Dr. Alvin B. Tillery
Dr. Alvin B. Tillery, Northwestern University professor
While Lacks is revered today, thanks in part to a popular book and movie about her story, what happened to her remains one of several examples throughout history of how the medical establishment has fomented mistrust among Black Americans.  

The shadow of this history lives in Black communities,” explains Dr. Alvin B. Tillery, Northwestern University professor and founding director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. 

Simply put, this mistrust, coupled with other factors, has led to racially unequal health outcomes, as a 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) study shows. One of the ways Walgreens is trying to rebuild that trust is through community outreach and health education about its clinical trials business. The topic of Black representation in clinical trials was discussed by Tillery and Walgreens leaders during a recent panel discussion hosted by Walgreens African American Leadership business resource group.

“Less than 5% of the U.S. population participates in clinical trials, and of those who participate, 75% are Caucasian and less than 10% are Black Americans,” says Walgreens Chief Clinical Trials Officer Ramita Tandon. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will soon require researchers to submit a “diversity action plan” when seeking approval for late-stage clinical trials. 
Ramita Tandon
Ramita Tandon, Walgreens Chief Clinical Trials Officer
Tandon says one of the first steps in encouraging more diverse populations to participate in clinical trials is taking advantage of the Walgreens footprint—nearly 9,000 stores across the country, with about half of those locations in medically underserved communities. 

“There’s work that needs to be done to really engage the communities we serve and empower them to decide to participate in clinical trials,” Tandon says. “It's the same thing we did during the COVID-19 pandemic. Retail pharmacies came together and collectively had to address vaccine hesitancy, and it was not a one-size-fits-all strategy. We’ll figure out the best way to match the right patients to trials.” 

Dr. Priya Mammen, who serves as senior medical director in the Walgreens Office of Clinical Integrity, says another “superpower” of Walgreens is the diversity of its pharmacy team members. 
Dr. Priya Mammen
Dr. Priya Mammen, senior medical director in the Walgreens Office of Clinical Integrity
Walgreens pharmacists are trusted in the communities they serve and are often very representative of those communities,” Mammen says. “That really goes a long way, not only in trust and reliability, but also in the ability to translate, to explain, to educate and to answer questions in a meaningful way for the person asking.” 

As Tandon mentioned, drugs that are in use today have only been tested on 5% of the U.S. population. And WBA’s 2022 Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Report notes that 20 percent of drugs have variations in response across racial and ethnic groups. So more diverse participants in clinical trials means safer drugs for all Americans.

“Walgreens desire to engage communities in an authentic way really makes me hopeful that we can begin to chip away at some of these healthcare inequalities,” Tillery says. “You're starting with a good opportunity to change the narrative. 

Learn more about WBA’s progress in advancing health equity, creating healthy communities, fostering a healthy and inclusive workplace, and more at our virtual ESG Report launch event on Thursday, March 9.