OPINION25 September 2023

The special diversity challenge facing healthcare insight

Healthcare Inclusion North America Opinion UK

New inclusive panel methodologies are helping to ensure that new treatments for diseases take into account historically under-represented communities, write Mili Bhatia and Danielle Schroth.

paper cut outs of people with a stethoscope

Market insights players serving the healthcare industry face diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) imperatives where the stakes are far higher than for the insights industry as a whole. In doing so, they are setting new best practices that every sector can apply. Data representativity can become a critical component of treatment safety, efficacy and overall patient impact in research for new treatment development.

Doctors are aware today that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status play a role in the fundamental understanding of diseases and responses to treatments. Yet historically, in the US, clinical trial subjects were predominantly white men –while life science market research projects were primarily sourced from white, female, and upper-middle-class respondents, according to life science insights trade group Intellus.

The journey toward diverse audience insights is just beginning. Pharmaceutical companies are making far more requests for sample diversity from sourcing providers than ever before. However, only 13% of respondents in a May 2022 British Healthcare Business Information Association (BHBIA) survey felt that DEI considerations were factored into the study sampling and/or design.

“Healthcare research often faces specific obstacles to diversity as the primary inclusion criteria are often about already difficult-to-recruit conditions,” said one BHBIA study respondent. “Often clients and agencies are more concerned with fielding quickly than achieving DE&I in samples,” said another.

Revising business as usual

Pharma manufacturers, market research organisations, panel suppliers, and industry associations are all embracing the challenge of bringing more representativity to market research. While many top drug makers have prioritised DEI and incorporated its values into their corporate culture, these objectives have yet to be fully integrated into business practices for most.

Some educate principal investigators from diverse populations, choose specific sites that are easy for people of their target audiences to access for trials, and conduct market research in those same areas to extend representativity through to commercial research.

Intellus formed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force a year ago to bring together multiple groups, including pharma and biotech firms, insights providers and panel recruitment experts, to re-examine business processes to drive change. The group was surprised by the lack of awareness of panel diversity compared to broad sensitivity to diversity in clinical trials.

For example, in January 2023, a major pharma company with a cross-functional team focused on improving survey panel diversity noted 28 LinkedIn mentions about DEI matters in market research in LinkedIn posts in the past year –compared with over 60 mentions in just one hour about DEI in clinical trials.

The team found the panel procurement process important since survey panels are often sourced from third parties. It suggested that bids for market insights work should consider the experience in sourcing diverse panels when choosing vendors. The team also cited the need to reach out to patients and healthcare professionals in often overlooked communities, including those treating rare diseases, homeless patients, and groups with longstanding hesitancies toward the healthcare system, such as migrants, indigenous peoples, those with HIV, and the imprisoned among others.

Best practices in building panel diversity

Learnings from manufacturers, market research organisations and industry associations reveal best practices worth considering.

  1.  Make a scholarship of the audience needing to be reach. Understand their preferences, where they seek information, who they trust, and how they like to be engaged
  2. Meet seldom-heard audiences where they are
  3. Establish soft quotas for diverse recruiting. Share with clients the organisations and communities targeted for recruitment to stay methodologically aligned
  4. Source key opinion leader groups that may have a typical focus
  5. Write questions carefully so that they can be readily understood across literacy levels and cultures, avoiding colloquialisms, idioms, and the like. Word questions so participants are clear about what you are seeking to learn
  6. Provide materials that are accessible to the vision or hearing impaired, including stimuli, other technology options that enable the participant to engage more fully
  7. Allow opportunities for quiet participants to talk/provide feedback to make them feel included with in-person focus groups
  8. Ensure locations, transportation, and time of day if in person are accessible for research participants
  9. Provide bi-lingual moderators if needed based on therapy areas and demographic mix, to avoid misperceptions if respondents are switching between languages or dialects 
  10. Offer a choice of moderator when appropriate, those of similar backgrounds, genders, and ethnicities.

Survey panel tactics that optimise diversity, equity, and inclusion are still evolving, yet the benefit of improving diverse representation goes to the heart of why market insights are essential.

When data is truly representative, therapies can make the greatest impact. Brands demonstrate that they value transparency, and foster engagement with constituencies that are critical to their success.

Mili Bhatia is senior vice-president, client services, at Survey Healthcare Global and Danielle Schroth is vice-president, panel operations, at Apollo Intelligence