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Men of Color conference highlights health care inequities

Panelists ID solutions for better medical outcomes

Avery Bleichfeld
Men of Color conference highlights health care inequities

At the 2023 Men of Color conference, held Sept. 6 at the Omni Boston Seaport, the focus was on men of color thriving in community, industry and society. The conference featured a broad array of panel discussions around men of color in various industries.

Two men received special recognition at the event. Real estate developer and civic advocate Darryl Settles and El Mundo Media President and CEO Alberto Vasallo III were honored as the 2023 Trailblazer Award recipients. The award honors outstanding work in both business and community.

In one session, local leaders in the life sciences and health care industries searched for ways to increase equity and diversity in those fields. In both this panel and a keynote address, speakers highlighted longstanding inequities in the life sciences and health sectors and the efforts it will take to address them.

Brian Johnson, vice president of research and development at Takeda Pharmaceuticals and the conference’s keynote speaker, said that solutions to inequities in health care and life sciences are going to come from within communities of color, not outside of them.

“This is our problem, it has to be our solution,” he said. “We collectively need to figure this out. No one is going to do it for us.”

But Johnson said that there is potential, with men of color in top-ranking positions within the life sciences and healthcare industries.

“All the dry powder is here, we just need a spark,” he said.

Johnson said the need to take initiative is especially important now, as the health care system becomes increasingly digitized and incorporates more and more data.

He said disparities in the system, which currently is largely driven by data from white men, are only going to get worse if people of color don’t get involved.

“If you think that our health care outcomes are bad now, if we don’t participate it’ll just get worse,” Johnson said.

Speakers also highlighted the COVID-19 pandemic as an inflection point, as the county at the same time faced a racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd.

Theo Hill, director of medical affairs and medical strategy at Vertex Pharmaceutical, said during a panel discussion the ongoing impact and awareness from the pandemic on diversity in health care spaces gives him hope.

But for Michael Curry, president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, that shift was a long time coming.

“We shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to realize that [need for diversity],” said Curry, while moderating the panel on men of color in the life sciences and health industry.

Panelists also discussed the need to focus on bringing men of color into the life sciences and health care fields.

That introduction to the field should occur early on, and with intentionality, said Al Campbell, president of Winchester Hospital. As those introductions occur, they should be passed on to the next generations of men of color, he said.

“When we have a seat at the table, we need to leave that door open,” Campbell said.

In an interview following the event, Curry said that goal of passing on success was one of his top-line takeaways from the conference.

“We come to these accomplishments through tremendous study, a commitment to our professional careers,” Curry said. “But we enter these roles with a responsibility to pay it forward.”

That recruitment and retention should reach people where they are to build pipelines, he said.

“We watch them grow as they develop and then introduce them to opportunities within the sector, instead of just hoping that people reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in a job,’” Curry said in the interview.

Companies and organizations must also consider opportunities and impacts of more diverse workforces, said Steven Silva, vice president of talent acquisition and chief diversity officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

“You’re almost holding up a mirror,” Silva said, “‘Here’s how you look today. Are you happy with that?’”

The panelists also celebrated simply being in a gathering of men of color to discuss their shared experience. Silva said gatherings like the conference are something that bring him hope for the future in the life sciences and health care.

Curry credited Emerson Foster and Paul Francisco, co-founders of the Dinner Group, for their work to create convenings like the one Sept. 6.

“It’s just phenomenal when men of color can get together and talk about our lived experience, our aspirations, our challenges within the various sectors that we work in,” Curry said in the interview.

During the panel, the speakers also highlighted the importance of helping men of color believe that they belong in STEM fields.

Hill, who in his role as medical director has worked to develop cures for patients with sickle-cell disease, said that belief can have big results.

“Whatever your dream is, go for it,” Hill said. “The end result can absolutely be this little Black girl or this little Black boy not having to die from a disease that’s been plaguing us for centuries.”

Men of Color conference