June 17, 2022
Putting Patients at Ease. Diversity and the Comfort of a Familiar Face - Steph Anderson
Chief People Officer at Meridian Clinical ResearchGuest
Taking part in a clinical trial can be a daunting experience - especially for those in underrepresented communities. This week, Steph Anderson, chief people officer at Meridian Clinical Research, joins us to discuss the importance of patient engagement with diverse communities to reduce obstacles and increase participation. Steph also discusses Merdian’s new diversity initiative and explains why other companies shouldn’t let perfection hold them back in tackling diversity, equity and inclusion.
"Walking into a study can be anxiety-inducing for anyone. When you add in the layer of not knowing if you are psychologically safe because you're in a minority or you've experienced bias, that can be an extra factor."
This week, Steph Anderson, chief people officer at Meridian clinical research, joins me on the podcast. You may recall that last month, Nikki Osborne, the CEO of meridian, it joined me to discuss the company's unique culture. Well, this week Steph is here to expand on that discussion to talk about the company's diversity initiative. Hi, steph, thank you so much for joining us.
To start, could you explain a bit more about your role and how it works? Yeah hi, Hannah, thank you so much for having me. So my role, as you mentioned, is chief people officer at Meridian. And so I'm really responsible for overseeing all aspects of human resources that includes talent acquisition, employee retention and engagement, compensation benefits and company wide learning and development.
I've also taken the lead on many of our diversity. Past two years, in addition to some other fun projects, like serving as the point person for getting our business intelligence tools up and running. What's a typical day in the life? A typical day in the life for me?
It kind of bounces around, you know, we're a very fast growing company, as you probably learned from Nikki in a previous podcast. But we have doubled our company size over the past couple of years. So a large part of my day is just helping figure out how to attract the best talent to our organization and how to keep them. So a lot of that is, is new initiatives.
Thinking about, you know, how do we revamp our employee feedback? How do we create benefits that are really meaningful to people? For example, we just introduced a volunteer time off program where employees can get four days a year to go volunteer at a nonprofit of their choice. So a lot of it is just building really fun initiatives that are relevant to our culture and our mission, vision and values, as well as some of the other fun stuff like how do we train people to really be successful in their roles?
So diversity is a buzzword in the industry at the moment in a lot of industries, not just clinical research. So many companies talk about it, and it's not always to find as well as it could be. Why is diversity important and what does it mean to meridian? Yeah, so I think diversity can be a buzz word.
And the reason why is. That it really means that we as a culture, creating diverse and inclusive environments is important. The problem is that many times we don't know where to start. We don't know what great really looks like or we don't know the pathway to get there.
So meridien, we really look at inclusion from two main perspectives. One is the area where I spend most of my time, and that's from the employee perspective. The other critical area in research is, of course, the perspective of our study participants. So we have two other primary groups in Meridian that focus on the study participant point of view, and we collaborate very closely together with them to create continuity in our D and I initiatives.
So we look at inclusion from those two perspectives, the employee and the study participants, that's really led us to feel we need to improve our initiatives with a three pronged approach, which includes an employee focus, including our principal investigators, as well as our site expansion and how we grow our sites, as well as how we engage with our patients. I know that you have a strong diversity initiative at Meridian. Could you explain more about this? Yeah, absolutely.
So this has been a big focus for us over the past couple of years, and as I mentioned, we really want to take kind of a three pronged approach that focuses on employees, focuses on how we expand our sites and how we engage patients. So when we look at it from the employee perspective, what we know is that diverse teams performed better. And they're more engaged when they have strong leadership. So part of our task is not only to attract and retain a diverse pool of talent, but also to train our leaders to create psychological safety and the teams that they lead.
About a year and a half ago, we as a leadership team decided that we needed to have a more strategic plan to ensure where we to. I'm going to start that over about a year and a half ago, we as a leadership team decided that we needed to have a more strategic plan to ensure we were operating in a way we could be proud of. The first aspect of that was putting together a group of our employees that could help us set the course. So we created an application process for employees who wanted to be a part of this committee.
And after the committee was formed, we decided that our first task was going to be to pull our employees and find out their opinion of how we were doing as an organization. What we learned through that is that thankfully our employees, for the most part, felt very safe from discrimination in the workplace. But where we had a lot of neutral scores were in responses to questions about whether employees were clear on meridian's goals regarding diversity and inclusion. And it didn't always feel we did a great job of communicating our stance.
We also learned that employees wanted more training on how to interact with each other and with study participants. So through that those findings, our next step was to start talking about D and I more regularly. We created a central location where we could push content and begin to roll out regular. So our next step was to start talking about D and I more regularly.
We created a central location where we could push content and begin to roll out regular, mandatory and effective training. This year, we're also in the process of building out more business intelligence tools that will give us real time visibility to diversity metrics, including things like the racial makeup of our staff and whether we have pay inequities for any particular groups. I mentioned this a three pronged approach. So really, the second one is the initiative regarding our site expansion.
Just this year, we hired a chief strategy officer who oversees a newly formed department specifically handling strategic site expansion that newly formed strategic growth and development department focuses on optimizing our growth strategy in a way that addresses the needs and challenges of the industry. A piece of that vetting process includes engaging, diverse principal investigators and also selecting communities where we can embed that are more diverse. The third and probably one of the coolest pieces is really the initiative around patient engagement. So one thing that we're so proud of is that we've got a growing patient engagement team that is currently working on a more targeted approach to engaging, diverse participants.
That team frequently collaborates with community leaders, elected officials, advocacy groups to provide resources and information about our trials. These efforts are to ensure that our studies are as inclusive as possible and represent all populations impacted by a condition or a disease. One of the other cool things that this team did was create a patient review system called a press. It's a proprietary tool and a method for collecting patient feedback and driving continuous improvement.
So that team is developing a series of time dependent surveys with different questions to glean information from patients at various stages of the participation process. So maybe after the first visit or after a year and a study or after the completion of a study in that feedback really helps us define our internal processes and allow us to make changes and improvements where needed. You know, there's some other really cool things about amplifying voices of our participants. So this year, NPR will be conducting monthly one on one interviews with patients.
These patient testimonials and written or a video format may be used across a variety of mediums to educate and inspire current and potential study participants, employees or just the general public. These interviews will represent points of view from all races, ethnicities, gender ages and geographic locations. And then, you know, some of the stuff that we've always done is really getting out into our communities. So not just that patient engagement team, but many of our meridian staff members will participate in a variety of local community events to engage with potential participants and discuss study opportunities.
Things like health fairs, church socials, parades, union meetings, state fairs, athletic events and Diversity Council meetings, just to name a few. Marketing and advertising team has really helped with our different patient engagement. I'm going to start that over our marketing and advertising team has been really focused on working with patient engagement to appeal to a diverse group of study participants. I mean, really simple things like using a diverse range of people in our ads.
Again, that seems so simple, but it's often overlooked. We also use targeting ads. We also use interest targeting on ad platforms to reach certain demographics and ethnicities. We can build custom audiences and lookalike audience based on desirable demographics to help reach the people meridian needs.
We stack interest in custom lookalike audience targeting to really hone in on the most viable patient populations. For example, the 5% of people in the targeted population, perhaps with an interest in certain health conditions that are most likely to be interested in research. And because of that commitment to inclusivity and other patient focused initiatives, meridian was honored with CRC inaugural excellence and patient centricity award at the 2021 global site solution summit. You've got this massive initiative, and you must have had a lot of feedback about, you know, how people have responded to it.
What do you feel have been the main benefits of the initiative. So far? Well, we've got great feedback, both on the employee side and the patient side, so, you know, like I mentioned in our first survey that we conducted of our employees, what we learned is that they are employees didn't know what our stance was. They felt pretty safe, but they didn't know what our stance was as a company.
So, you know, just being able to regularly talk about it, let our staff know that these initiatives are going on, create a central location where they can go, access, you know, new trainings about things like unconscious bias. So we've received great feedback about our employee focused initiatives and in view, some of our content, like the employee spotlight each month to push publicly through sources like LinkedIn. This has helped us to attract a more diverse pool of talent, and we've just heard great feedback from our employees about seeing better representation in our normal communication on the patient side because of our commitment to inclusivity and other patient focused initiatives.
Meridian was honored with Chris's inaugural excellence and patient centricity award at the 2021 global site solutions summit. And that's something we have been incredibly proud of. When we think about sites and diversity, we always think about patients, but it's equally important to have diverse staff so patients can relate to people who look like them, so to speak. What are your thoughts on this?
Well, I agree that we naturally feel more comfortable, especially when in a marginalized group, if we can see someone else that's like us, we know it's important to have employees who reflect a wide range of demographics for lots of reasons. Statistically, we diverse teams perform better and are more engaged, but there's a great ripple effect of having a diverse team. And that is that we can appeal to a diverse set of participants. Walking into a study can be anxiety anxiety inducing for anyone.
When you add in the layer of not knowing if you are psychologically safe because you're in a minority or you've experienced bias, that can be an extra factor. Preventing someone 4 from participating in life saving research. So we've got to do what we can to reduce those barriers. And when I think about some of the minority groups that experience the most fear the transgender population comes to mind, our D&I committee has been having conversations about how to help this population feel safe in research.
One of the ideas that we've been exploring is how to include gender identity and our source documents. There's obviously a scientific reason why we would have to capture biological gender at birth and our source documents. But we can also include a question regarding gender identity, adding that one additional question is a signal to that transgender community and other populations that meridian and research is a safe space. Research naive sites can often be a really great stepping stone to making sites more diverse.
What have you discovered regarding this topic? Yeah so part of, you know, when we look at going to open a new site, it's always on our mind that, you know, you can achieve some diversity through literally embedding your site into a diverse community. So you know, that is one way to achieve some more diversity. If that particular community has the groups that you're targeting or if a particular, in our case, maybe pi, who we're working with, has an existing database of patients that we to be diverse.
That can be a really great way to get new and diverse participants involved in research. But it's really not the only way. Certainly, that's one aspect that we're looking at whenever we go to start a new site or grow an existing site. But another way to increase diversity in an existing population is to work with different community based groups.
So, for example, maybe there have been instances where we'll partner with a faith based group with a particular demographic of patrons, and then we've utilized that religious leader to help educate that particular community. Another example might be finding a community partner in an immigrant population where large cohorts migrate to New locations together. And if you can educate a piece of that particular population who's really close with a lot of family members or friends who've migrated, then they help, you know, educate each other about the importance of research and the safety of participation.
What advice do you have for other companies who may want to introduce a similar scheme? I think my biggest piece of advice would be don't let the fear of making a mistake prevent you from getting started. I think so many of us fear getting diversity initiatives wrong, and that fear ends up preventing us from making any progress. At meridian, we are so much further along today than we were a year ago, and we still have so much further to go.
But every effort that we make matters, so just put one foot in front of the other and you'll find your way. Little steps are often the most important, and we can lean on each other in the industry to make progress. We know this progress is so critical to build strong communities, companies and safe environments that will allow us to move medicine forward through research. Well, we want our staff and our study participants to be a reflection of our broader national population base.
We want to be known as a company that provides a safe and inclusive and equitable environment for all. So in five years, hopefully much less, we expect to have built out tools that give us real time visibility into our employee and participant graph demographics, and that visibility will allow us to make Swift decisions to rectify inequality. So we in five years, we're going to be so much further along than we are today. We're committed to, you know, learning and growing every year.
And this is something that's going to continue well beyond five years. It's something that we'll be focusing on forever. I love that and promise you'll come back and give me an update. Oh gosh, we would love to.
I can't imagine and and just, you know, a year and a half how much progress we've made is remarkable. I can't even I can't even imagine in five years what this might look like for us.