Novartis harnesses data to combat health disparities in US

Lutz Hegemann, Novartis AG's group head of corporate affairs and global health, spoke to S&P Global Market Intelligence about the Basel, Switzerland-based pharmaceutical company's environmental, social and governance targets ahead of its eighth annual investor day.To get more novartis updates, you can visit shine news official website.

With racial disparities in health leading to an estimated $93 billion in excess medical care costs and $42 billion in lost productivity globally, this issue remains the cornerstone of the company's efforts. Novartis has reached 29 million patients to date this year via its access to medicines program, and in July the company also announced a 10-year commitment with historically Black colleges and universities to address the causes of U.S. healthcare disparities.
Lutz Hegemann: It's fair to say that very early on we took this topic very seriously. It's also linked to the nature of our business, because pharmaceutical business[es] inherently have a very strong social component. Society expects us to develop safe and effective medicines that we make available to as many patients as possible, and to run our business ethically. We are constantly trying to push the boundaries here to be a step ahead.

There's two elements to our strategy: one is the access to our core portfolio [of drugs]. But then we also have the access principle, where we committed to look at global access across the entire value chain. We are focusing on a few global health priorities where we feel that we are well-positioned scientifically to make a big impact.

But there are new emerging health threats — dengue fever being one — which I think also speaks to the connectivity between climate changes and the impact of planetary health and human health. We have a drug development candidate for dengue fever and we need to understand how the disease is evolving. It is one of the diseases that is really on the rise and where we feel we need better data to drive healthcare interventions.

The vision is that this is the first disease where we collaborate, but that this will translate into other global health priorities as well.We need to go much, much deeper. And I think it's fair to say that COVID has shed a light on those health disparities that have existed for centuries, I would argue, and it's really complex.

What distinguishes us from other approaches is that we acknowledge that we don't have the answer but we need to work together with those communities to define what matters to them. We invested half a year in just listening, having a dialogue [about] 'What is it that limits your ability to access healthcare?' Because you can have big commitments to include more diverse patient populations in your clinical trials, which without doubt is one element, but is it ultimately going to move the needle and are you ultimately going to accomplish that goal if you don't go deeper?

We are now starting this very comprehensive collaboration with 27 Black colleges and universities that aims to empower African American students, looking into the underlying causes of this health disparity through research on data standards. For instance, most data standards were established in Caucasians and they may not apply to Black and brown communities physiologically.

It touches medical science, it touches education, it touches society at large. And this is where we want to devise a more holistic approach, rather than just focusing on one [key performance indicator] and trying to give it a quick fix. Because that's not going to work, it's not going to be sustainable.