This year’s JP Morgan Healthcare Conference was, as so many other things have been over the 12 months, a little different than in previous years. And so was the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) annual review of the conference. Rather than being held in-person, it was broadcast live, with panelists, hosts and participants joining virtually from across the country and beyond. The great news about this format was that it enabled record numbers of people to join, to listen and engage with the panelists and their perspectives.

Among the speakers at the event were Fritz Bittenbender, SVP, Access and External Affairs of Roche Genentech, who delivered the keynote on the JP Morgan insights and trends for 2021; my co-panelist were Sandra Horning, board member Gilead and Moderna, and co-founder EQRx, Gary Puckrein, President & CEO, National Minority Quality Forum and Leah Sparks, CEO Wildflower Health. It was hosted by Laurie Cooke, CEO HBA, with Sophia Ononye-Onyi as moderator.

Launching the event, it was noted that 2020 was a bumper year for investment in Life Sciences – up from $9B in 2019 to $14B in 2020 – largely due to funding for innovation in key areas of digital health, patient data and vaccines. This is expected to continue with the Biden administration’s overall shift in focus to addressing healthcare disparities and its focus on vaccination, constraints on healthcare infrastructure and reenergizing the US economy.

Moving the discussion over to the panel, three trends emerged as key focuses for 2021: Digital Health, Inclusion and Diversity, and Mental Health.

Three trends for 2021


Trend #1:
Data and digital health

Trend #2:
Inclusion and diversity

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Trend #3:
Mental health

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These trends from the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, and the insights shared in the panel discussion, demonstrate that the world is now a very different place than it was pre-pandemic. While the life sciences industry has been working towards better access to mental health services, the adoption of digital health, and making strides for better inclusion and diversity in clinical trials, the pandemic brought these to the forefront of our industry. At the same time, the limitations the pandemic wrapped around the industry, have driven collaboration with positive outcomes among those who were once competitors. The innovation that has been born from the constraints of the pandemic has served us well – and will act as the foundation for future advancements.

 

TREND #1: DATA & DIGITAL HEALTH

Technology was on the mainstage in 2020. At the height of the pandemic, 50% of doctor’s visits were being conducted via video calls. This shift was well primed and ready to take place, but the rapid emergence of the pandemic accelerated the transition significantly. This digital innovation is expected to continue going forward, with the biggest life sciences organizations redefining themselves as not only pharma companies but also as software companies, with increased investment in and inclusion of digital talent.

Of course, challenges remain. Despite the rapidity of vaccine development that showed what is possible when digital information and collaboration takes place across the competitive landscapes, there are broader issues in manufacturing and distribution that need to be addressed. Patients and clinical trial participants need to be supported not only with the technology, but also with processes, and logistics of digital health.

TREND #2: INCLUSION & DIVERSITY

One of the most significant challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the disproportionate impact it has had on people of color. There is an immediate need for more equity and inclusion in all aspects of healthcare, especially the clinical trial process. The marketplace is one of the most important venues to create social change, as the majority of people under the age of 18 in the US, are in minority groups; they will be the users of therapies going forward. Diversity and inclusion are no longer a “nice to have”—they are a must.

When it comes to women in the workplace, there is also an urgency for more inclusion. Women have been impacted at a far higher number than their male counterparts during the pandemic, with over 4.7 million losing their jobs. The majority of childcare responsibilities still fall to women, who may not have employers willing to support them while working from home. The panel agreed that there is a lot employers can do to support women and families right now., adding, now is the time to implement change, and to take it forward into the future.

Inclusion isn’t just about ticking a box, of course. It’s about real access for women, people of color, and other minority groups to opportunities, support, and leadership. Patients, the workforce, employers need different kinds of support at different times in their lives and the mindset should be that today is different from tomorrow; something that should be considered for everyone.

TREND #3: MENTAL HEALTH

Mental health is something that affects everyone, but often has a bigger impact on women and minorities, which ties back to the importance of diversity and inclusion. Whilst exploring this trend, the panel discussed the significant gaps in terms of access to mental health support, and how it impacts people in the spaces where we have more disparities.  An interesting, but extremely sad acknowledgment was that a lot of healthcare professionals are dealing with mental health challenges. The Lorna Breen Act which has been proposed in congress, contains legislation aimed to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions among healthcare professionals.

The positive news is that many organizations and employers, and the Biden administration are focused on supporting women, minorities, and the broader workforce with mental health initiatives. Stronger policies, improved understanding of work-from-home situations and better access to support will be key in 2021 and beyond.

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While the life sciences industry has been working towards better access to mental health services, the adoption of digital health, and making strides for better inclusion and diversity in clinical trials, the pandemic brought these to the forefront.

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The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) panel discussion not only highlighted trends but explored solutions and expectations for the next year ahead. A solid focus and improvement in inclusion and diversity,  better access for all workers to mental health services,  and significant investment in digital health, are all set to be big drivers going forward to grow and aid continuous evolution in life sciences.

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Stuart Henderson

Client Account Lead – North America

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