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Workplace changes for clinical trial diversity: Genentech’s Gerren Wilson

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Drug research has a diversity problem.

Roughly 86% of participants in clinical trials are white, according to a recent analysis published in the journal Nature last year. And that’s in spite of the fact that clinical trial data used to approve US drugs increasingly comes from countries all around the world.

While working to get a more diverse group of patients to participate in clinical trials, one key place to start is in the workplace, said Gerren Wilson, the head of patient partnerships at Swiss drug giant Roche’s Genentech unit.

Gerren Wilson.
Courtesy of Genentech

Companies lay out their health benefits for employees, but may not explicitly state that participating in clinical trial research is an option for them, or that resources, like taking off the requisite time, are available. By having a designated policy outlining those benefits, companies can also work to address the barriers that keep people from getting involved in clinical trials, like the need for transportation to and from research sites.

Wilson and team came up with this idea last year, when planning to discuss inclusion in clinical trials with elected officials in Washington, DC. But they also realized that change had to start within Genentech’s own walls — because the company had no such formal policy of its own.

“And that’s what we do — we are a research and medicine company,” Wilson, who works out of Genentech’s campus in South San Francisco, California, told Business Insider.

The path that they took to get Genentech there speaks to both the problems companies can encounter in this space and what it takes to overcome them.

More representative patient participation is needed in research for drugs because patients respond to medications in different ways. Such research, though, can be difficult for patients to access, something the FDA pointed to in new draft recommendations on diversity in research.

That’s a focus for Wilson at Genentech as well, across both the company’s own efforts to develop new drugs and collaborations with outside partners like elected officials, doctors, and healthcare groups. Keeping in mind the many ways that the healthcare system has historically wronged people of color is also crucial to that mission, he said.

In recognition of Wilson’s work, Business Insider just named him one of the 30 young leaders transforming the healthcare industry.

Read more: Top young leaders at 23andMe, One Medical, and Oscar Health reveal their best advice for transforming the $3.5 trillion healthcare industry

Coming up with ‘something tangible’ for companies to do led to Genentech creating its own policy

If there’s one thing that Wilson has learned from his career, which includes time as a pharmacist, in sales, and now at Genentech for more than eight years, it’s that simplicity and actionability are key.

“People will collaborate with you if you can simplify what their contributions are, both the ask and resources available to address the ask,” he said.

That consideration guided his team as they considered how to talk to members of Congress about moving forward with more inclusive research. Wanting to give elected officials “something tangible they can do,” the team came up with the idea of a clinical trial policy, Wilson said.

The idea is to both spell out that clinical trials are one treatment avenue for employees, and that health benefits and other resources can be used to support an employee while pursuing clinical trial research.

The whole thing came to a head late last year, though, when Wilson was presenting about that work internally to a room of about 70 people in Genentech’s human resources group. The group was enthusiastic, and even talked about sharing the project with other large employers. That’s also where they started to realize Genentech should have its own formalized policy.

How to create a clinical trials policy at a large company, and weighing potential costs

In an overarching guidance document spelling out benefits and resources available to employees diagnosed with illnesses, Genentech plans to add explicit reference to clinical trials.

Because the company already had comprehensive health benefits, creating a new policy was, in many ways, about “organizing information in a different way,” Wilson said.

Most of the benefits compiled as part of this new focus on clinical trial participation, or about 80%, were already available to employees, like the ability to take time off work when needed, Wilson said. The remaining about 20% in the works should be completely new, including access to cutting-edge tests for cancer tumors through the company Foundation Medicine— which is for all employees, including those participating in trials and not — and coverage for transportation costs to and from appointments, according to Wilson.

The plan is to roll the new policy out to employees at the end of the year, and have it included in open enrollment for health benefits for 2020, he said.

“We’ve done this to signal to managers of employees, ‘here’s a new clinical trial policy. If a person communicates that they’re in a trial, it may require them to take off work or go to appointments with doctors. Know that we are supportive of that,'” Wilson said. “The net effect is now, people will be more aware of what their options are.”

And yes, the potential costs to the company did come up. But the team determined that less than 5% of Genentech employees would even be eligible, making the additional cost “pretty nominal,” Wilson said.

Reached for comment, a Genentech spokeswoman said the company could not comment on these figures. She said that the policy is not yet finalized.

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