Diverse Perspectives with Angela Hwang

Making Patients Our Partners, with Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron

Episode Summary

In our latest episode, Angela sits down with Pfizer’s Chief Patient Office, Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, to talk about her profound personal journey from training as a physician to becoming a lifelong patient advocate, and how COVID-19 has intensified the need to address health disparities in society.

Episode Transcription

Angela:

Hi, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Diverse Perspectives. I'm Angela Hwang, and today I am delighted to be joined by Doctor Dara Richardson-Heron, who is appointed Chief Patient Officer at Pfizer just earlier this year. Dara is a physician by training, and she did her residency at Bellevue Hospital, which was a highly influential moment in her career, leading her from the doctor's office to advocacy and leadership roles in the public and private sectors, which included the National Institutes of Health in the US, where she was Chief Engagement Officer and Scientific Executive of the All of Us Research Program. She's passionate about advancing health equity and bringing forward the patient voice, which couldn't be more important than it is today. So, Dara, thank you so much for joining us.

Dara:

Well, thank you so much. I'm delighted to be here.

Angela:

You've certainly had an extraordinarily diverse set of experiences in healthcare. First, as a physician, but then taking on nonprofit and government roles. Now, here you are at Pfizer as our Chief Patient Officer. So, I'd love to hear about your journey. What drew you to healthcare in the first place? What were some of the defining moments in your career? Was there actually a common thread throughout all of this?

Dara:

Angela, actually, there was. I have been laser focused on becoming a doctor from as early as I can remember. Ironically, it's one of the first times that I haven't had a plan B, in terms of a career. So at age 17, I learned that Barnard College was a college that matriculated the largest number of individuals into medical school. So, I was determined to do my pre-medical studies there. And choosing to study medicine at New York University Medical School in New York really wasn't an accident. I knew I'd have an opportunity to provide high quality care for an incredibly diverse array of people, who presented with an equally diverse set of medical challenges and conditions. 

Dara:

During my residency at Bellevue, which you may know as the oldest hospital in the United States, public hospital, it was, in many ways, an inflection point, because for years, I'd learned about and read about health disparities in academic settings, but here I was now on the front lines, seeing health disparities play out in a real way. It wasn't pretty. Often, it was because these individuals had no access to healthcare. I was actually at Bellevue, and it’s interesting to think about it now, at the height of the AIDS epidemic when we had so few treatment options and tens of thousands of people who were dying every day. Kind of like what we're seeing now with COVID-19. It was an aha moment, that I knew that I wanted to have an impact far beyond what I could have in a traditional setting, a clinical setting. 

Dara:

So, I followed this passion. One of the goals that I've had is not only to decrease the burden of diseases, but, also, to connect with and be an advocate for patients. In particular, those who are unable to advocate for themselves. So, you may know, I describe myself as a physician by trade and an advocate by choice. That has set me on this 28 year career path that has spanned, as you know, corporate, academic, and nonprofit sectors. Now I have the good fortune of being at Pfizer.

 

Angela:

Well, thank you for sharing such vivid examples for us. I think you really bring to life why you made the choices that you did, but, also, relating it to our current environment, I think, makes it even all the more relevant. 

 

Angela:

Not everyone knows what it means to be a Chief Patient Officer, Dara. So, maybe help us understand how you see this role and what excites you about it. I know it's early days, but maybe share with us some of your early thinking and what priorities you've set for yourself.

Dara:

Well, you're right. Everyone doesn't know what a Chief Patient Officer does. At a very high level, being the Chief Patient Officer really means that I am doing everything in my power to make patients our North Star. For me, that means being very intentional about authentically engaging and partnering with patients and patient groups and other key stakeholders to really bring that patient voice into everything we do. That could span from early stage research and development, to late stage decisions on how to package a medication, and everything in between.

Dara:

I also see my role as increasing health equity and helping everyone overcome the barriers to accessing quality and affordable healthcare. I also want to drive a global patient advocacy strategy, because patients and patient advocacy groups really can be our close partners in this work. All of these things will go a long way toward advancing activities to address health disparities, actualized in our commitment as an organization to equity. We have so much to offer.

Dara:

For me, making patients our North Star, this isn't just a job for me. I really see it as a responsibility. The passion I bring into this role comes from my own personal experience, not only as a physician but as a caregiver and a patient myself. You may know that I was diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age of 34. It happened a month after my wedding. It was one of the most unbelievably surreal times of my life.

Dara:

I knew that I was going to need chemotherapy. There were four cocktails back then, one was worse than the other. Patients were not only dying from the disease, but they were dying from the side effects of chemotherapy. Now, fortunately, my story ends very well. I’m still here today. I responded well to the chemotherapy. But here's the thing. Thanks to medical breakthroughs, doctors now have an entire arsenal of cancer treatments to choose from. It's not the same old chemotherapy cocktail for all cases, as it was in the past.

Dara:

That's wonderful news. A large part of my motivation to achieve excellence in my role as Chief Patient Officer at Pfizer comes from wanting to ensure that biomedical advances benefit all of us, not just a select few.

 

Angela:

Dara, thank you much for sharing your own personal experiences. I think that it makes this, your role, come to life in such a personal way. Actually, I was wondering if I could pick up on something you said earlier, which is how you see your role as being one that really bring the patient voice into everything that we do. I just wondered if you could share an example or two, in terms of what does that really look like on the ground? 

Dara:

One of the great things that I've seen work is bringing patients more into the governance of what's happening. for example, early stage research, bring in patient groups early on. Ask them what endpoints matter most to them. Ask them what kinds of research, how the research can be made more user friendly so that they are more likely to be a part of it. because, in that way, they'll feel like they're a part of it. They've helped build it. You may even have more diversity in a trial. That's just one example.

Dara:

Another simple example. As you're designing educational materials, don't just design what you think is going to work for the population. Bring in the groups that will be leveraging and using this information. Ask them, "Does this work for you? What could we add to make this better? Simple things like that. 

Dara:

So, it could be anything from as extensive as involving them in helping to be involved in research, design, and endpoints, or being involved in educational materials or the PR for the organization. It runs the gamut, but what I know for sure is that when you bring in the patient voice, and you listen to the patients, you're more likely to get their buy in, and you're also more likely to make sure that they can support and be a partner in your efforts moving forward.

Angela:

Those are wonderful examples, Dara, about what it means to be patient centric and what the different roles that a pharmaceutical company like ours can play. So, thanks for sharing that.

Angela:

It's clear that you have a passion for addressing healthcare disparities. In fact, this has been your guiding light. It's what drove you towards being a physician, and then taking you out of that role into the public domain, and here at Pfizer. But if you look at the situation on the ground today, what's your perspective on the coronavirus having impacted some groups more than others?

Dara:

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic just, once again, illuminated the unspeakable health and socioeconomic inequities and realities faced by many in the world. We really shouldn't be at all surprised, because these groups were already marginalized in many ways long before the pandemic hit. Experts are still sifting through the data, but very early studies show that black and Hispanic communities are seeing the worst effects. In fact, in Chicago, we're learning that blacks make up half of all cases, and nearly three-quarters of the deaths, even though the city is only one-third black. Right here in New York, preliminary data shows that black and Hispanic patients are dying at twice the rate of white patients. It's due to a combination of factors, but it's real. Again, COVID-19 just put a bright spotlight on a problem that has existed for decades.

Angela:

So, what do you think we can do about this? Obviously, this is a complex topic. There isn't a one size fits all approach to reducing healthcare disparities in the world. How can we begin with creating a solution? Your own ideas but, also, what Pfizer can do.

Dara:

Well, you said it right. There isn't a one size fits all approach to reducing health inequities in the world, because they're so deeply rooted. I think, first, we have to all acknowledge that we all have a responsibility to the patients we serve, and we all must be part of the solution. When I say we, I don’t just mean Pfizer. I mean, the healthcare system and our society at large.

Dara:

Now, the how is much more complicated. I think one way that Pfizer can play a big role is making sure that we increase the diversity in clinical trials, because we know that health disparities are real, but they're not at all well understood.

Dara:

As just one example, African Americans account for about 12% to 13% of the US populations, but make up only five percent of clinical trial participants. I often say if you're not part of the research, you may be left out of the cures. So, I think that Pfizer is working to address this challenge by requiring our development programs to recruit participants who are more representative of the patient populations who are living with the conditions under study. I think that's a good start. I think we also can do more to provide more education to our communities, to help them understand the health conditions that are plaguing their communities.

Dara:

Really, I would love to see organizations get to the root cause of the problem, which is really trying to understand how we can address and attack some of the social determinants that we know are the root cause of some of these issues.

Angela:

A multifaceted problem, as you say.

Dara:

That's right.

Angela:

So, Dara, you know that here at Pfizer our purpose is to have breakthroughs that change patients' lives. Often, when we use that work breakthrough, I think people easily think about it in terms of a scientific breakthrough. A new medicine, or a new molecule. But, actually, Breakthroughs can happen in so many different ways and in so many different areas that are beyond the molecule. So, to wrap up our conversation today, I wondered if you could share with us where have you seen breakthroughs in patient centricity, and what is it that Pfizer could emulate in the future?

Dara:

Angela, that's an excellent question, because, the reality is if you don't engage and connect with the people who are going to be the end users, you may produce something that may or may not be of value to them. I tell you, in my work at the National Institutes of Health, it was so rewarding to actually bring the patients into our program. We call them our participant partners, because, truly, they were partners in what we did. We engaged them early. We made them feel part of what we did. So, therefore, they felt a real connection to the work. 

Dara:

That's why I'm so delighted to be here at Pfizer. I mean, I have seen so many amazing pockets of excellence, exceptionally focused on our patients, our North Star. So, I'm just looking forward with excitement to really working with everyone, to really build what I like to think about is a beautiful tapestry of patient centricity excellence.

Angela:

Dara, thanks for being with us today. You've really shared with us so many nuggets, insights, and, as you were saying, we all have personal responsibility in this, to elevate the patient's voice in all that we do. So, thank you for sharing all those insights with us today. It was really a pleasure to have you, and again, welcome to Pfizer

Dara:

Thank you again for the opportunity, Angela. The pleasure was truly all mine.