Reshema Kemps-Polanco: No ‘silver bullet’ to address health equity but Novartis making strides

By Isabel Cameron

- Last updated on GMT

Reshema Kemps-Polanco: No ‘silver bullet’ to address health equity but Novartis making strides

Related tags Novartis equity Patient centricity Clinical trials patient engagement

Whether they recognise it or not, the entire pharma industry is involved in the business of health equity and championing it is critically important.

This is what Reshema Kemps-Polanco, chief commercial officer of Novartis, told attendees at Reuters Pharma USA 2024. 

Kemps-Polanco, previously head of oncology at the company, currently oversees the commercialization of four therapeutic areas at the pharma giant: oncology, immunology, neuroscience and cardio-reno-metabolic.

Health equity, which she describes as a ‘highly charged topic’ has really come to the forefront over the last few years, with COVID-19 exposing key issues.   

“This is not a new problem, it has gone on for decades and impacted all types of people. However, one of the more positive things that emerged from managing COVID-19 and going through social and civil unrest in the US, is that the world was on pause.

"The pandemic allowed us to see the true disparities in healthcare when we started to see certain communities disproportionately impacted by a terrible virus,” she said.

Despite greater awareness, Kemps-Polanco stresses that equity remains an ‘incredibly complex’ issue and there is no ‘silver bullet or amount of money that any company can throw at it and say we solved it’.

When navigating how to make conditions better for patients in a vast healthcare ecosystem, long-term public and private partnerships, as well as accelerating AI to identify areas with significant disproportionate impact, is essential, she adds. 

Novartis is making a tangible effort to address these concerns, particularly with its two main initiatives: ‘more than just words’ and ‘the beacon of hope’.

More than just words is a program promoting health equity in breast cancer care, where there is a significant unmet need and racial disparity, with black women under the age of 35 diagnosed with the condition at twice the rate of white women the same age.

“It is truly close to my heart. During the pandemic, we saw an 80 to 90% reduction in breast screenings and mammograms and other types of cancers that are preventable. There is also a gender equity there, as women tend to put ourselves last and put our own health in the background as we are caregivers,” Kemps-Polanco says.

Reshema Kemps-Polanco, chief commercial officer at Novartis. © Novartis

“If you combine all those things in a community that is underserved, we see rates of diagnosis much later in the cancer stage, particularly in women of colour and rural communities. More than just words is really about – how do you educate women of colour around screenings, what questions they should ask and how they can work with healthcare providers to get the care they need.”

In addition, the beacon of hope is a ten-year collaboration with 26 historically black colleges and universities, including medical schools, aimed at ‘bringing clinical trials to the community rather than telling the community that they have to go to clinical trials’

“To address endemic inequalities, you must have representative clinical trials, which is why we’re starting much earlier in the development process to ensure that our trials moving forward better reflect the populations for which we serve,” Kemps-Polanco adds.

"You also want to make sure those trials are accessible, not just for representation, but also to build trust in the community to remove barriers, whether it be transportation or other factors, to get people enrolled in trials."

The initiative also offers mentoring programs at these academic institutions, ‘to contribute towards the number of medical professionals who will go out into these communities and work with the patients’.

From a commercial perspective, the Novartis executive also describes how the company is implementing health equity assessments in a certain disease area within in its business plans.

“As the team bring forth their plans, they all have a template and its assessing what are the demographics, what is the socioeconomic status, what is the mix of insurance coverage, it’s many things.”

Despite health equity posing challenges for the industry, Kemps-Polanco is optimistic – urging her peers to keep it in the forefront of their minds, as pharma companies are uniquely positioned to make a real impact.

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