Employee Group Bolsters Business, Society

An African American ERG drives Eli Lilly-Tuskegee University partnership to dispel long history of clinical trial fears among Blacks.

tuskegee experient copy
Photo Courtesy of Center for Disease Control and Prevention

By Eve Tahmincioglu

We talk a lot about the benefits of employee-resource groups for careers, onboarding, socialization and retention. But these groups, known as ERGs, can also benefit an employer’s business and, potentially, society at large.

Case in point: African Americans have long been skeptical when it comes to the medical establishment, particularly of clinical trials.

The distrust of such trials stems from a dark chapter in our nation’s history, when the U.S. Public Health Service, while working with the Tuskegee Institute, led African American men to think they were being treated for syphilis — but all the while they were never given adequate treatment for the disease. Researchers wanted to know how prolonged syphilis impacted individuals. The despicable bait and switch, known as the Tuskegee Study, began in 1932 and was not unearthed until 1972.

It left an indelible mark on the African American community, and unfortunately the distrust has impacted the advancement of medical drugs and treatments for Blacks because their participation rate in clinical trials is so low.

That’s where Eli Lilly’s (No. 24 on DiversityInc’s 2015 Top 50 Companies for Diversity) long-standing African American ERG comes in. Their work led to a groundbreaking collaboration announcement late last month to boost participation.

Lilly African American Network meeting. Kevin Henderson, George Okpamen, Jamal Greene, Michael Adams

Many of the 800 members of Lilly’s African American Network (AAN) understood the skepticism and the company’s consequent issues with low-participation rates in clinical trials among minorities, as well as what that meant for treatment breakthroughs — and the company’s business.

The AAN proposed a partnership with Tuskegee University to study the issue with hopes of driving change. The comprehensive plan will include community engagement, education and research.

“African Americans have not benefited equitably from the genius of human subject research based on a history of distrust due, in part, to the myths and facts about the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee,” said Rueben Warren, professor and director of the Bioethics Center. And Senior Medical Director, Lilly Oncology, Global Leader, Diversity in Clinical Research Coleman Obasaju added, “This partnership is incredibly important to the advancement of clinical trial diversity and ultimately improving health care for African Americans.”

So how did what many deem a corporate social group become so instrumental in a key initiative?

“Historically, ERGs have really been a social group and over the years we’ve tried to get away from that,” said Jamal Greene, a Lilly district sales manager and the outgoing chairman of the AAN. While they still support members, the group shifted to also focusing on supporting the business and finding ways to “best reach customers we support.”

Greene outlined three objectives he sees for the ERG:

  1. Business impact: How the ERG works across businesses and how the ERG’s liaisons play a role in solving challenging business problems
  2. Workplace objectives: How to support the ERG network and other Lilly colleagues in personal development and diversity and inclusion
  3. Marketplace objectives: How to improve patient outcomes; provide community outreach, especially in the Indianapolis area; and how to enhance the Lilly brand

“We really use data to shape our objectives and how we align our initiatives,” Greene explained. They also use functional liaisons who serve as conduits between the AAN and business functions.

Tuskegee Lilly partnership
Jamal Greene; Dr. Coleman Obasaju; Ernest Alema-Mensah, Ph.D, Morehouse School of Medicine; Janice Chavers, Lilly communications; Rev. Joan Harrell, Tuskegee University; Gordon Fykes, director for this Lilly-Tuskegee project; Dr. Rueben Warren, professor at Tuskegee and director of the National Bioethics Center at Tuskegee

The ultimate goal? “We wanted a seat at the table to provide input,” he said.

They got what they wanted: connections to leaders in the organization who understood diversity and inclusion needs and were also able to provide financial support. Most importantly, he added, “We had their ear.”

The AAN holds quarterly brainstorming sessions to discuss how to have a greater impact, and it was at one of those meetings that the clinical trial issue came to the forefront.

One of AAN’s oncology liaisons Kenny Rule, who was a Tuskegee University alum with connections to key folks at the school’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, suggested Lilly and Tuskegee find a way to work together. A year and a half ago representatives from the university met with the group, and the rest is history.

Indeed, Greene hopes it’s one big step in helping right history, a history of distrust in the medical system he understands all too well. “My grandfather was like that and my dad is like that,” he explained. But, he added, his 12 years at Lilly have helped him better educate his family and friends about the benefits of medical research.

Through ERGs, he said, “we are able to bring our unique perspectives to the table.”







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