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.
“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.
“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.
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.