‘Black Lives Deserves Quality Healthcare’: Gilead’s Commitment to Advancing Health and Black Equity

‘Black Lives Deserves Quality Healthcare’: Gilead’s Commitment to Advancing Health and Black Equity

Equity in healthcare should be fundamental, something everyone can depend on when it comes to treatment, crisis management, and basic prevention. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that the healthcare system experience in the United States is not the same for everyone.

“Black Americans are among the most vulnerable to chronic and life-threatening illnesses from HIV to breast cancer to COVID, and more likely than white Americans to die from them,” says Rashad Burgess, vice president of Advancing Health and Black Equity (AHBE), a reimagined community engagement team of the US-based biotech company Gilead Sciences.

“Stark disparities in healthcare access and outcomes impact every aspect of Black lives and have c0mpelled us as a company to lean into finding solutions, to use our resources and expertise to do something meaningful.”

AHBE gathers many of Gilead’s programmatic and philanthropic initiatives related to Black health and equity under one umbrella. Under Burgess’s leadership, the team engages in a comprehensive set of initiatives that bring together health industry leaders and advocates, HBCUs and academic institutions, community-based organizations, tech innovators, and more to work collaboratively toward sustainable, community-based solutions.

 The team’s strategy has several distinct components, starting with partnerships with organizations having an on-the-ground impact on Black health outcomes and access. Powerful voices of influence in the culture and community serve to generate critically needed dialog about health awareness and positive health practices with Black youth and other specific underserved groups. “The goal is to end the stark disparities in healthcare access and outcomes that have plagued Black people since slavery,” Burgess says.

Gilead is no stranger to the health equity space. The 35-year-old pharmaceutical firm has developed innovative therapeutic options for people living with HIV, viral hepatitis, cancer, and other challenging conditions.

The company’s focus on research and development of life-enhancing treatments is matched by its commitment to ensuring that the most vulnerable communities have access to them. In 2022, the company earned recognition as the No. 1 philanthropic contributor to HIV-related programs. In addition, the company has a long history of partnering with organizations and programs that address stigma, discrimination, and other social factors standing in the way of health equity.

In October 2022, Gilead launched its first-ever HBCU Homecoming Roadshow, an initiative created to conduct health awareness outreach on Black college campuses across the country. The six-week tour traveled to nine cities, touching down at 11 schools (including Howard, Morehouse, and Xavier), generating conversation around breast health, clinical trial diversity, and representation in the health fields.

For Burgess, the Roadshow tour illustrates a core goal of AHBE, to engage one of the principal drivers of equity in healthcare, the next generation of Black health professionals.

“HBCUs produce 50 percent of Black doctors in the United States – the medical schools at Howard and Xavier alone account for 92 percent Black med school graduates,” says Burgess, who shares that the tour reached a multi-generational Black audience of 500 – 700,000 students, alumni, faculty, and community members.

“These are the individuals who will be championing Black health and equity in the healthcare system and in the creation of public policy. Just as important, they will be the agents of information and preventative care on the ground in Black communities nationwide. Gilead is eager to support and partner with these future providers.”

Tiffany West, who serves as AHBE’s Senior Director of Public Affairs, describes the group’s focus on Black health and equity as a logical extension of Gilead’s thrust to optimize the benefits of life-saving therapies for those experiencing the greatest need.

“Black women have a 40% greater chance of dying from triple-negative breast cancer than white women,” West says.

“As a company, we always need to ask, ‘What is our responsibility to make sure everyone has equal access to therapies that can prolong their lives and improve their health?’ That’s what equity means to me.”

West and Burgess credit Gilead’s leadership for its willingness to reassess and reevaluate its longstanding commitment to Black health. AHBE represents a renewed and more targeted strategy when wide healthcare access disparities are producing increasingly unequal and tragic outcomes in Black communities.

The result, says Burgess, “is an amply funded, 365 days a year, seven-day-a-week commitment to creating and sustaining more equitable health outcomes for Black and other historically marginalized communities.”

Storytelling is fundamental to AHBE’s strategy and success – the practice of listening to, elevating, and sharing stories of Black experiences within the nation’s healthcare system.

“Black people have strong reasons to be skeptical of the system based on years of blatant disregard for Black bodies in the name of American medicine,” says Burgess. “We must acknowledge that history. Even today, providers often dismiss Black concerns when we try to access care. As a result, too many patients of color are leaving the system.”

These circumstances prompted Burgess and his team to engage in what he calls a “cultural humility” tour. The effort involves talking to caregivers and walking them through the disparities African Americans experience, helping them understand levels of mistrust of the medical system. “And we emphasize why it is vitally important that providers not dismiss Black experiences and actively listen to what your Black patients are telling you.”

The response, Burgess says, “has been incredible! The trainings have proved an important place to talk about the racial dynamics of healthcare and for organizations to act intentionally to address disparities.”

Intentionality extends to Gilead’s community engagement efforts. AHBE Senior Director for Public Affairs, Omoro Omoighe, MPH, says creating a companywide culture around Black equity, supported by programs and policy, will translate to more informed, empowered, and healthier communities.

“If we act ethically and with good practice, we can mind the gap in health disparities largely based on lack of inclusion and community engagement. Black people and other communities of color need to be at the table when decisions regarding our healthcare, like clinical trial programming and screening guidelines, are made,” Omoighe says.

A particular benefit to better health outcomes in Black communities is greater diversity in research and development, including clinical trials. Explains Burgess: “We must ensure diversity from early development stages through launch. Equity also means collaborating with diverse principal investigators, bringing Black minds to the table to engage in this research.”

Moving forward, AHBE looks to avoid the pitfalls of overly generalizing its strategies and practices. All the unique and specific factors related to the Black healthcare experience are central to AHBE’s work and decision-making.

“Equity is different from equality,” Burgess says. “It’s not about doing the same thing for everyone. It’s about understanding each community and doing what it takes to achieve positive outcomes. For Black patients, that means making sure everyone vulnerable to HIV is aware of their status and that those who are living with HIV are on therapies that allow them to live their lives. It means making sure Black women have cancer screening and treatment and that they know what it means to be on different therapies and how each one impacts their quality of life. It means being intentional.”

“Everyone deserves quality healthcare, especially Black lives,” says Burgess. “If it takes extra work to make that happen, we need to do that work.”

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