After years of suffering from mysterious symptoms, my mother Janice Thomas finally found a doctor who correctly diagnosed her with two autoimmune diseases, Lupus and Sjogren's. Both diseases are more prevalent in the black population than in other races and are often misdiagnosed.
Like many chronic health conditions, a lack of understanding persists about their causes, individual manifestations, and best treatment strategies.
On the search for relief from chronic pain, my mother started researching options and decided to participate in clinical trials as a way to gain much-needed insights. In return, she received discounted medical testing and has played an active role in finding answers for all.
“When my doctor told me I could get financial or medical benefits from participating in clinical trials for the same test I was already doing, I figured it would be an easy way to get some answers at little to no cost,” she says.
As a person of color, her presence in clinical studies is rare. The National Institutes of Health has found that minorities make up less than 10 percent of trial participants.
Without trial participation that is reflective of the general population, pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals are left guessing how various drugs work across racial lines. For example, albuterol, a widely used asthma treatment, was found to have decreased effectiveness for black American and Puerto Rican children. Many high mortality conditions, like cancer, also show different outcomes based on race.
Over the last decade, the pervasive lack of representation has left communities of color demanding higher levels of involvement in the research process. However, no consensus yet exists on how best to achieve this.
But experts suggest that before we can improve black participation in medical studies, key misconceptions must be addressed, such as the false assumption that such patients are unwilling to participate because they distrust scientists.
Jill A. Fisher, a professor in the Center for Bioethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, learned in one study that mistrust wasn’t the main barrier for black Americans. “There is a lot of evidence that researchers’ recruitment of black Americans is generally poorly done, with many black patients simply not asked,” Fisher says. “Moreover, the underrepresentation of black Americans is primarily true for efficacy trials – those testing whether an investigational drug might therapeutically benefit patients with specific illnesses.”
Dr. Joyce Balls-Berry, a psychiatric epidemiologist and health educator, agrees that black Americans are often overlooked in the process. One study she conducted found that “enrollment of minorities in clinical trials meant using a variety of culturally appropriate strategies to engage participants,” she explained.
To overcome this hurdle, The National Black Church Initiative (NBCI), a faith-based organization made up of 34,000 churches and over 15.7 million African Americans, last year urged the Food and Drug Administration to mandate diversity in all clinical trials before approving a drug or device. However, the FDA declined to implement the mandate, declaring that they don’t have the authority to regulate diversity in clinical trials.
“African Americans have not been successfully incorporated into the advancement of medicine and research technologies as legitimate and natural born citizens of this country,” admonishes NBCI’s president Rev. Anthony Evans.
His words conjure a reminder of the medical system’s insidious history for people of color. The most infamous incident is the Tuskegee syphilis scandal, in which white government doctors perpetrated harmful experiments on hundreds of unsuspecting black men for forty years, until the research was shut down in the early 1970s.
Today, in the second decade of twenty-first century, the pernicious narrative that blacks are outsiders in science and medicine must be challenged, says Dr. Danielle N. Lee, assistant professor of biological sciences at Southern Illinois University. And having majority white participants in clinical trials only furthers the notion that “whiteness” is the default.
According to Lee, black individuals often see themselves disconnected from scientific and medical processes. “One of the critiques with science and medical research is that communities of color, and black communities in particular, regard ourselves as outsiders of science,” Lee says. “We are othered.”
Without increased minority participation, research will not accurately reflect the diversity of the general population.
“We are all human, but we are different, and yes, even different populations of people require modified medical responses,” she points out.
Another obstacle is that many trials have health requirements that exclude black Americans, like not wanting individuals who have high blood pressure or a history of stroke. Considering that this group faces health disparities at a higher rate than whites, this eliminates eligibility for millions of potential participants.
One way to increase the diversity in sample participation without an FDA mandate is to include more black Americans in both volunteer and clinical roles during the research process to increase accountability in treatment, education, and advocacy.
“When more of us participate in clinical trials, we help build out the basic data sets that account for health disparities from the start, not after the fact,” Lee says. She also suggests that researchers involve black patient representatives throughout the clinical trial process, from the study design to the interpretation of results.
“This allows for the black community to give insight on how to increase trial enrollment and help reduce stigma,” she explains.
Thankfully, partnerships are popping up like the one between The Howard University’s Cancer Center and Driver, a platform that connects cancer patients to treatment and trials. These sorts of targeted and culturally tailored efforts allow black patients to receive assistance from well-respected organizations.
However, some experts say that the black community should not be held solely responsible for solving a problem it did not cause. Instead, some observers suggest that the federal government and pharmaceutical industries must step up to address the gap.
According to Balls-Berry, socioeconomic barriers like transportation, time off work, and childcare related to trial participation must be removed. “These are real-world issues and yet many times researchers have not included these things in their budgets.”
When asked to comment, a spokesperson for BIO, the world’s largest biotech trade association, emailed the following statement:
“BIO believes that that our members’ products and services should address the needs of a diverse population, and enhancing participation in clinical trials by a diverse patient population is a priority for BIO and our member companies. By investing in patient education to improve awareness of clinical trial opportunities, we can reduce disparities in clinical research to better reflect the country’s changing demographics.”
For my mother, the patient suffering from autoimmune disease, the need for broad participation in medical research is clear. “Without clinical trials, we would have less diagnosis and solutions to diseases,” she says. “I think it’s an underutilized resource.”