Nothing crystallises the need for diversity and inclusion quite like pharma – a dose of unity makes us all feel, work and collaborate better – and now we must prescribe it throughout our industry

The great awakening to diversity and inclusion is, mercifully, gathering pace across all industries, throughout the country and down the avenues and alleyways of our lives. 
For decades, we’ve had a taste of it, through food and music, but now the glorious beat of difference is changing the rhythm of our communities, our experiences, even our thoughts.

Crisis of conference

Having been the veteran of more healthcare conferences than I’m comfortable admitting, the best gigs involve different people. And, yes, by this I mean fewer white men in their 50s called ‘Ian’ and ‘Neil’. That’s not to say that ‘Ian and Neil’ don’t deliver compelling insights, it’s simply that a broader palette of human experience does avoid the 3pm lull.

Amid the general celebration and enlightenment of diversity there remains some scepticism. Is this box-ticking or the ‘quota systems’ talk of the 1990s? Or is this part of the woke world we increasingly live in?

It’s actually far more all-encompassing than mere ‘fairness’ or liberalism. A lack of diversity and inclusion is a major part of a wider existential crisis which impacts us all.

Some people, for instance, still struggle with the idea that climate change can be linked to the parity of humans. Some people still think that taking on climate change is all about carbon emissions, recycling and planting trees.

I would ask ‘some people’ to consider this. If we ignore the equalness of people and thus remove opportunity, innovation, ideas and knowledge from certain groups we – in doing so – cause division, health inequalities, pressure on the NHS, economic uncertainty and the unravelling of wider society.

In contrast, when we celebrate a diverse society with varied backgrounds, perspectives and stories, magic happens. Business performance increases, new friendships blossom and, yes, drug development is accelerated and – critically – much more likely to succeed.

Changing guard

We are discovering on a daily basis that an inclusive workforce produces a much more nuanced understanding of disease. Different abilities, ethnicities, sexualities, as well as people from different social or economic groups, bring a vast tapestry of first-hand, primary expertise to the R&D table.

It’s a combined panorama which clearly usurps the assumptions of a selected few, enabling organisations to explore hitherto neglected areas and reach solutions with greater clarity and flexibility.

To appreciate diversity and inclusion is to appreciate the human condition in all its forms. This seems particularly relevant when viewed through the prism of pharma and healthcare.

For organisations or institutions which do not yet see the destiny of difference as a force for good, the example of Yorkshire County Cricket Club should serve as a warning. This institution was exposed as an anachronistic throwback, oxygenated by majority ignorance and stagnating in a toxic atmosphere of truly unbelievable belief systems.

In contrast, healthcare does have a proud history of diversity and inclusion – by no means perfect, but certainly enough evidence to highlight the gargantuan benefits of a culturally cohesive infrastructure. Pharmacies, general practices and surgeries are all positive case studies of inclusivity. They are also, at times, a magnificent reflection of ‘multicultural Britain’. The challenge is for every aspect of healthcare to hold up a mirror to society.

Promised land

Pharma and the life sciences have certainly improved in the arena of D&I but there are many rivers for it to cross before reaching the promised land.

Inclusion throughout the route to market – in the realms of initial development, broader research, laboratory work, clinical trials and patient group consultation – would all be enlightened by much greater diversity, and in swathes rather than pockets.

Ash Rishi is founder and CEO of COUCH Health – the creative health engagement strategists, patient experts and inclusion luminaries. He knows that the path to genuine diversity can only be a force for good in pharma.

“What it brings to company culture is an overall sense of belonging,” he insists. “It engenders a feeling of equality and creates a place in which people feel supported. It sets the tone, allowing people to thrive personally and professionally.”

Indeed, in the pursuit of public health this concept of parity is essential. After all, disease doesn’t care about how much money you have, where you live or the details of your heritage – as the COVID-19 pandemic has so emphatically proved. Devising strategies relies on a much more joined-up approach.

Ash says: “I never wanted to create an echo chamber and am proud of the gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity and qualification perspectives we have at the company. It delivers diversity of thought, a sense of purpose and an ability to grow more rapidly.”

By recognising the parity of humankind through the prism of pharma COUCH Health is determined to witness greater diversity and inclusivity in clinical trials. The pure logic of multi-profile cooperation throughout treatment development, research and delivery is something Ash is passionate about.

“It’s a no-brainer,” says Ash. “If a disease population is made up of 40% caucasian males, 30% African heritage females and 30% Indian heritage, does it make sense for a drug to be tested only on white males? No!”

“I think COVID-19 really highlights the disparities which need addressing, when it was discovered that the Pulse Oxygen monitor didn’t work on darker skin, there should have been introspection as to why. Again, when dermatology diagnosis tools do not work on dark skin, we have to ask ourselves why? When we are designing our protocols are we ensuring it is equitable for all, including people of varying abilities? It’s not about good PR, but fairness for all,” he adds.


When the focus is placed on the entity of pharma, as opposed to wider healthcare, our industry has much to accomplish when it comes to D&I.

It needs to happen, not at some point in a mythical, non-specific future but immediately. Again, COVID has demonstrated – albeit under grim circumstances – that cultures, work practices and vaccine strategies can change overnight (quite literally).

The international pandemic proved beyond any doubt that we are equipped to live in the moment and ‘live changes’ rather than relying on a future that never quite happens. There is no excuse anymore for denying diversity – pharma must continue to gain the traction of recent years as we all enter a new era defined by difference and allied by unstoppable digital dynamism.

“Pharma has not been a trailblazer, but the situation is changing,” Ash says candidly. “In the past couple of years, however, the industry has stood up, they have improved the culture, awareness within the workforce and have recognised that change is necessary.”

It makes complete sense to have equality throughout the system. In the UK we have an unrivalled record of providing pioneering medicine access irrespective of situation, circumstance or heritage.

For a product to reach maximum levels of impact, diversity and inclusivity must be prevalent from the outset and at every plot point of the journey to market. That’s not whimsical, left-leaning dogma but sound scientific logic.

In five years, Ash wants us to reconvene and recognise an industry that recognises the currency of diversity at every stage of the medical maze. He wants to see inclusion, not as a woke obligation but as an essential navigational asset – a moral and metaphorical compass through disease conundrums.

It’s not an unreasonable ambition and it’s one that must unfold if we are to inspire the next generation of pharma innovators. If the incentive for a long-overdue cultural shift is to stay well and live longer, the uptake should be universal. After all, we are all human.

Living daylights

Evidently, diversity and inclusion is not just a moral imperative, but an opportunity for our industry to ignite the treatment landscape and transform many more lives in the process.

Data will reveal much more about the human condition; biological equations will be decoded in a fraction of the time.

We must seize the day, after all we are united by a common denominator – our health – and it will always be improved by balance and unification.

New pharma milestones rely on difference and achieve that may be our finest discovery to date.