Wednesday, Oct 25, 2023

Driving Patient Outcomes Through Health Equity Partnerships

Sean Hood,Strategy Insights & Planning Consultant, ZS

Vimbai MudimuAssociate Principal, ZS

Elyse FretzAssociate Principal, ZS


Changes in the healthcare landscape—more attention on patient experience, persistent unmet needs, rising consumerism and the expansion of value-based care—have led healthcare organizations to devote more time and attention to patient outcomes in recent years. 

For life sciences, this has meant a shift in focus from a treatment’s features and benefits to a focus on patient outcomes. Alongside this change has come growing recognition that up to 70% of a person’s health outcomes are driven by nonmedical social determinants of health (SDOH), such as gender identity, race or ethnicity, income, lifestyle, education, where a person lives, how they access care and other diverse factors. Only about 30% of outcomes are driven by medical care and genomics, which is where life sciences companies have historically devoted the most resources. 

To make progress on patient outcomes, life sciences companies will need an expanded focus on SDOH and other drivers beyond the products it delivers today, but life sciences can’t do it alone. Collaborating with organizations already focused on promoting health equity is the best way for life sciences to make progress on outcomes. Prospective partners for life sciences include patient advocacy groups, payers, government and public policy organizations, as well as community-based organizations focused on education, housing, healthy food, the environment and other drivers. 

A health equity partnership, which for life sciences companies specifically refers to a collaborative alliance with another organization focused on promoting health equity, can:

  • Address fundamental patient needs that have a direct impact on overall health outcomes
  • Foster stronger trust among patients and other stakeholders within the healthcare ecosystem 
  • Overcome barriers in reaching underserved populations that are often overlooked
  • Generate a more significant impact than either organization could achieve individually

For example, a life sciences company may view collaborations with payers to be valuable because many payers already understand the importance of working with community groups and other healthcare organizations to address barriers to care. Payers also recognize what their members need and possess a wealth of data that can help identify the most effective locations for piloting programs. 

Some examples include the alliance between UnitedHealth Group, Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future and the National Affordable Housing Trust, which addresses housing insecurity through its Health and Housing Fund. Additionally, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Heart of America and iHeartMedia joined forces to build a food pantry in a local elementary school to increase access to fresh and shelf-stable meals. 

Partnerships in health equity are particularly compelling because all healthcare sectors, including life sciences, bring unique capabilities and strengths to the goal of advancing health equity. For life sciences, these capabilities include deep knowledge of disease areas, which provides insight into disparities, drivers and ways to improve outcomes. 

Navigating the barriers to entry

Even organizations with perfectly aligned goals and missions can face headwinds when establishing a partnership. But anticipating obstacles can make them easier to tackle. Key challenges for life sciences partnerships can include:

  • Concern from legal and compliance teams, particularly when it comes to transfer of value or anti-kickback considerations
  • Limited population insights due to inconsistent data and lack of best practice sharing
  • Piecemeal funding sources, primarily for pilots or proof of concepts
  • Limited dedicated capabilities and resources on the business side
  • Difficulties with scaling program impact given many partners have a limited geographic focus

Many of the above challenges can be addressed during the partnership journey, which begins even before partner selection. 

That journey has four phases, which include:

1. Problem refinement. Life sciences companies should enter partnerships with a clear idea of what kind of challenge they want to address. For example, do they want to increase screening rates in rural areas? Boost diabetes medication adherence in Pacific Islander communities? Having a substantive, well-defined idea is table stakes for engaging with partners.

2. The next step has three highly iterative phases:

  • Assessing the landscape and identifying the best partners for a potential intervention
  • Designing potential solutions to address a health equity gap—ideally in co-creation with the partner organization
  • Finalizing the details of the partners, operating model and partnership strategy

3. Build and execution. Work with all parties to operationalize the partnership and launch the intervention.

4. Evaluate and replicate. Measure and evaluate the intervention to refine and potentially replicate a successful partnership in other places.

5 Success factors for launching a health equity partnership

Once a life sciences company has identified an organization with complementary strengths and a shared mission to fight for health equity, five pivotal factors will drive the success of a health equity partnership. They include:

  • Proceeding compliantly. Partner with legal to accelerate the partnership and launch innovative collaborations within appropriate compliance guardrails.
  • Knowing your partner. Understand the partner landscape and identify viable options based on program objectives.
  • Centering the patient. Keep the affected patient population at the heart of all solutions and outcome measurements. It’s easy to get distracted by the business objectives and lose sight of the patient.
  • Starting local then replicating efforts. Make meaningful progress first through local pilots, but consider how to scale efforts to achieve broader impact.
  • Rallying the organization. Navigate and overcome the complex organizational dynamics that can come up when introducing new health equity initiatives.

To ensure they’re thinking tactically, life sciences companies and potential partners should be able to answer questions such as: How will the partnership and interventions be monitored and evaluated? What incentive does each party have to participate? What specific segment will the partnership target and what are the key patient needs? What kind of mutual value can be created? 

While each health equity partnership can be narrow in scope and scale, partnerships that are repeatable can have an exponential impact on communities across the globe. We’ve already seen tremendous progress from life sciences partnerships and their ability to address health equity and make progress beyond their traditional remit. Examples include:

  • Merck’s Merck for Mothers is a “global initiative to help create a world where no woman has to die while giving life.” Merck has worked with over 165 organizations to promote safe, respectful care and improved access to high-quality facilities. 
  • Genentech’s Memphis Breast Cancer Consortium (MBCC) focuses on breast cancer education and screening for Black women in Memphis, where Black women with breast cancer are more than twice as likely to die of the disease than white women. Through community engagement, education and community-wide data reporting, MBCC hopes to reduce disparities in breast cancer-related mortality and increase screening and treatment for underserved and Black women. 
  • Take Action for Health works to eliminate health disparities in Black communities by providing educational materials about increased health risks in this community. Organizations involved in this initiative include Pfizer, City of Hope, Elevance Health and many others. 

These programs and hundreds of others have shown us what’s possible when organizations join forces—but they can’t stop there. Healthcare organizations need to take what they’ve learned from yesterday’s partnerships to prepare for tomorrow’s, because those in need of access to effective care, on their own terms, can’t afford to wait.

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