January 16, 2017

With the 35th J.P. Morgan just behind us we enter into the bold new world of 2017 with high expectations and some instructive soul searching in-hand. As expected, innovators from across the world yet again provided the “shock and awe” of how diverse discoveries can be translated into new healthcare solutions. New ways to detect, intercept, treat and track life threatening diseases. These combined with new ways to put patients or perhaps any of us prior to being “a patient” into the center of our treatment decision. Allowing us to provide the real-world evidence that can be used to refine the medical thesis of these conditions and how to optimize care, with us actively and collaboratively involved. Early hints of a world to come.

But in contrast to these bold steps forward, the 35th JPM also provided a time to reflect on how little some things have actually changed. Not so much on the “what” or “how”, but the “who” of what makes our industry and our ecosystem, possible. Following a much discussed evening reception event at JPM in 2016, a year later diversity and inclusion was front and center. And although we’ve seen some impressive accomplishments over the course of 2016, and a call for renewed attention and commitment has resulted, we clearly have, a long way to go. But go we must and the business case for diversity and inclusion is unassailable.

In healthcare, we have a particular fascination (and a little better than most) emerging understanding of the mind. And it is into the mind that we will need
to travel if we as an industry are going to lead the way on diversity and inclusion. Humans, from birth (and longer than any other species), depend on nurturing. Brought into this world with the potential of reason, speech, and imagination but with much to learn before any of these uniquely human features are available to us. Core to our survival on the savanna’s of our recent past was the ability to develop our first survival reflex – trust, “am I OK here, with these people”. It is from these moments in the earliest parts of our development that we begin to build the neural architecture that for the rest of our lives will be continuously and subconsciously updated on what being “safe” means. In humans this is core to what it means to “belong” and so much of these impressions or mental frameworks are derived from what we “see”. This is the evolutionary remnant of what we now call “unconscious (or implicit) bias” – mental algorithms that have dramatic influences on all the decisions we make, without us even knowing it. Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji, an expert in the area, has shown that these early acquired biases can be slowly nudged into new default settings but it takes conscious work and it requires changing what we “see” around us. In what group do we belong and how
is safety and success witnessed.

If you have not taken an implicit bias test, perhaps you should. Click to try. 

In diversity and inclusion initiatives, all too often a “Big D, little i” approach is taken. As implied by the importance of “seeing” it is critical that we acutely focus on increasing our diversity levels (gender, race, age or otherwise) across our industry and certainly into the ranks of our leadership. These numbers matter deeply. But to build and szebraustain the transformative change that we seek we have to also dramatically increase our attention on the “little i of inclusion”. For it is also clearly understood and studied, that only in the context of the “feeling that I belong” that is provided by inclusivity are any of our talents truly expressed – to fit, to be understood, to be accommodated in meaningful ways, this is what allows us to excel. Perhaps it is, committing to mentoring, or offering gender neutral flex time or proximal/onsite daycare, or encouraging paternal leave or whatever any exceptional diverse team member might require to provide the extra support. It is the deep and durable commitment and investment into these unique needs that will allow us to “show” to our diverse team members that they too truly belong, are safe, and are equally exceptional. When they see it, believe it and thus flourish, then all those behind them will have the evidence they need to believe in themselves and flourish as well.

Within 10 years from its start, the biotech industry had transformed the “idea” of cutting and pasting DNA from a new cool molecular biology class thing, that we did in Eppendorf tubes and on agarose gels into FDA approved products that could potently address diseases in ways never before imagined. Perhaps by the 45th J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference we will yet again have brought to the world, new approaches and solutions that had previously never existed. Without inclusiveness, so much of the promise on the horizon for our industry will not be realized. Can we be the first global industry on the planet to demonstrate and enjoy the vibrancy, grit, resilience and strength that a truly inclusive workforce provides? To move beyond the incremental progress of today’s “Big D, little i” narrative, to the exponential potential of parity and inclusivity contained within the synergy of “WE”. Together, WE can, but WE have no time to waste.

“The time is always right, to do what is right.” Martin Luther King, Jr.