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      HomeOur CompanyHealth Equity Champion spotlight: How Dr. Yolanda Lawson fosters inclusion through clinical trial diversity
      Headshot photo Dr. Yolanda Lawson
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      Health Equity Champion spotlight: How Dr. Yolanda Lawson fosters inclusion through clinical trial diversity

      Our Race to Health Equity is partnering with National Medical Fellowships to address health inequities and help make the next generation of physicians as diverse as the patients they serve. Through this series, we’re profiling people at the heart of Johnson & Johnson who are working to eliminate persistent gaps and create more effective and equitable health systems.

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      For nearly 20 years, Dr. Yolanda Lawson has served as an OBGYN, performing difficult surgeries and working with patients to address maternal health, cardiovascular health and issues such as HIV/AIDS. In that time, she’s also witnessed the various ways that a lack of diversity in our health system contributes to health inequities for communities of color.

      It was in medical school that Dr. Lawson first experienced how underrepresentation can negatively impact patient care. She recalls standing in a room with an older Black patient who was surrounded by students, residents and the attending doctor, all discussing his plan of management for the day. As the medical team moved on, the patient turned to Lawson — the only other Black person in the group — and said, “Can you please explain to me what they’re saying?” Amid all the conversations among clinicians about the patient’s care, not one of them had actually addressed him directly.

      What Dr. Lawson witnessed firsthand that day has, in part, shaped the trajectory of her career. Today, Dr. Lawson — who in August was named president of the National Medical Association, the nation’s largest organization representing Black physicians and their patients — is working to close gaps and bring more effective treatments to her patients, with support from Johnson & Johnson and the National Medical Fellowships (NMF) Diversity in Clinical Trials Research program.

      Championing a Diverse Body of Evidence

      There is ample evidence indicating that better representation in the health workforce leads to better care and more positive outcomes for patients. This is particularly true when it comes to the clinical trials conducted to bring new drugs and medical devices to market. When patients of color are included as trial participants, researchers can better understand critical data on efficacy. In contrast, when trials lack diversity, the resulting drugs, devices or tools can ultimately be less effective for patients of color, as recent research on pulse oximeters and temporal artery thermometers has suggested.

      A longtime champion of inclusion, in 2015 Dr. Lawson began actively searching for a clinical trial training opportunity, hoping to identify a position that would enable her to add research to her practice while benefiting a population that she served. When Dr. Lawson learned of a clinical trial on HIV prevention that was enrolling Black women, she jumped at the chance to apply.

      Once approved in 2022, Dr. Lawson wanted to ensure that she was as prepared, equipped and knowledgeable as possible. That’s when a friend sent her information on the NMF Diversity in Clinical Trials Research program.

      Established in 2021, this program has since worked to increase the engagement and participation of patients from underrepresented populations in clinical trials and to grow the number of clinicians from underrepresented groups who serve as principal investigators.

      A collaborative effort of Janssen, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and AstraZeneca, the NMF Diversity in Clinical Trials Research program equips emerging investigators with the tools and support to participate in and lead clinical research teams. To date, more than 120 clinicians have completed its 10-week curriculum, which focuses on developing the core knowledge, skills and competencies needed for clinical trial activities, along with support such as mentoring and networking to bridge the gap between training and practice.

      “The program was a lot more in-depth than I had anticipated,” said Dr. Lawson. “I would recommend it not only to anyone who is an aspiring researcher but also to folks at all levels of their careers.”

      Breaking Down Barriers by Building Trust

      Dr. Lawson recognizes and understands the larger unmet need for more inclusive clinical trial research, and she sees diverse clinical investigators as the key to enrolling more diverse study participants. “I personally believe it has to do with trust,” she said. “Especially when we’re talking about studying drugs that are not yet in use by the masses and haven’t yet been approved by regulatory bodies.”

      At Janssen, to help address this and other barriers individuals might face when participating in clinical trials, the Research Includes Me initiative provides educational and clinical resources to patients and investigator sites to establish meaningful connections within communities of color and drive awareness of the clinical trial process. The end goal? The program aims to encourage historically marginalized communities to sign up for a clinical trial — getting one step closer to making health equity the norm.

      Along with bringing in more diverse participants, Dr. Lawson believes that programs like NMF Diversity in Clinical Trials Research can help attract more diverse clinicians into the healthcare field. By serving as a primary investigator, she works to help a wider spectrum of people envision a place for themselves in clinical research.

      “I hope to do my part to inspire and help those who want to go to medical school or become a healthcare worker,” Dr. Lawson said. “Most importantly, I want to assist those already there to finish, because how many of us go in with the best intentions but don’t actually have the support needed to enter the field?”

      Putting health first in a pandemic

      My Health Can’t Wait provides patients and healthcare providers with key resources to help them have meaningful conversations about how and when to prioritize needed care—both during the pandemic and beyond.
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