Dara Richardson-Heron, M.D., ’85 describes herself as a physician by trade and an advocate by choice. As Chief Patient Officer at Pfizer — one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies — the Barnard Board of Trustees member leads efforts to advance patient-focused programs and platforms with input from patients themselves. This work includes ensuring that clinical trials fairly represent Americans from diverse walks of life, which is particularly crucial now as Pfizer searches for a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, one that Richardson-Heron says could be ready for regulatory review as early as October 2020.
“I always say, if you’re not part of the research, you may be left out of the cures,” Richardson-Heron said when she joined President Sian Leah Beilock in conversation on August 27 for the fourth installment of Insights: Powered by Barnard. “I think we really have to do everything we can to make sure that there is diversity in all aspects of our lives. And as we talk about health disparities, there's got to be a strong connection between participation in research and the development of treatments and procedures that will be impactful for all Americans.”
Prior to joining Pfizer in 2020, Richardson-Heron served as the chief engagement officer and scientific executive for the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) All of Us Research Program. There, her work centered on an initiative to engage 1 million or more individuals in a biomedical research program with a goal of building one of the world’s more diverse health databases to help researchers better understand and address health disparities. Her impactful career also includes executive leadership positions at YWCA USA, Susan G. Komen, and United Cerebral Palsy Association. Richardson-Heron holds a medical degree from New York University’s School of Medicine and she majored in biology at Barnard.
In this exclusive online conversation for students and alumnae, presented by Beyond Barnard, Richardson-Heron and Beilock discussed her leadership role at Pfizer, self-advocacy, preventing burnout, and developing a COVID-19 vaccine.
Read key insights from Richardson-Heron below:
On being a physician by trade and an advocate by choice:
“I did my medical residency at Bellevue Hospital, and in many ways, it provided an inflection point for me. It was at Bellevue where I actually saw patients — many through no fault of their own — who presented with late-stage, often incurable disease. For years I learned about health disparities in academic settings, but [there] I was on the frontlines seeing health disparities play out in a real way, and it was often because people had little or no access to care. I was also at Bellevue at the height of the AIDS epidemic. We had very limited treatment options, and tens of thousands of people were dying every day all around the world, much like what we’re seeing with COVID. It was a devastating time for me, but as I look back it was also an ‘aha!’ moment for me, both personally and professionally. I realized that I was determined to create an impact in the world much larger than what I could do in a traditional clinical setting, which was the norm at the time. There was no road map for this. But I still followed my passion. I was determined not only to figure out a way to decrease the burden of disease but also to connect with and be an advocate with and for patients.”
On the work of a Chief Patient Officer:
“A Chief Patient Officer is singularly focused on identifying, creating, and amplifying a strategic framework for impactful interactions with patients. While a culture of patient centricity and patient focus needs to be embedded in the DNA of all employees, I think it’s imperative to have a leader in the organization for whom respectful, bidirectional, and authentic patient and community interactions are the singular focus. Think about it: As we develop medicines, treatments, or vaccines — without this direct input and participation of patients from all walks of life, it’s very hard to ensure that the developments and the medications can actually benefit all patients.”
On the importance of proper representation in clinical trials:
“Race, environment, ethnicity, culture, age, and gender are all factors that can impact patient outcomes. The problem is that historically, many individuals haven’t been sufficiently represented in clinical trials. For example, African Americans count for about 13% of the United States population, but they make up only 5% of clinical trial participants. Similarly, the Latinx population comprises over 16% of the U.S. population but make up only 1% of clinical trials. The disparities are similar for Native Americans and other racial and ethnic groups.
“Here’s the problem: This underrepresentation makes it so much more difficult for researchers, for regulators, and for physicians even to understand the extent to which a medicine can help certain subsets of the population, and this is not okay. As I always say, if you’re not part of the research, you may be left out of the cures. And there are many known barriers for participation in research, including a lack of trust, given historic transgressions, but I think we really have to do everything we can to make sure that there is diversity in all aspects of our lives. And as we talk about health disparities, there's got to be a strong connection between participation in research and the development of treatments and procedures that will be impactful for all Americans.”
On choosing Barnard:
“I came to Barnard from Oklahoma City in 1981 because at the time Barnard had the highest percentage of students who successfully matriculated into medical school. I was laser-focused on achieving one of my career goals, and that was to become a physician. But I also selected Barnard because of Barnard’s incomparable and rich legacy as a leader in higher education for women. I remember being told at freshman orientation, ‘Barnard women change the world and the way we think about it.’ It was at that point that I knew for sure that Barnard was the right place for me.”
On being a woman of color in the C-suite:
“Advancements have been made, yes, but still today as a woman and certainly as a woman of color, you often have to raise your hand and say, ‘Hey, hey, I’m here. Do you see me? Consider me!’ That’s just the reality. I think the thing that keeps me sane is that even if I am the only [person like me in the room], I ground myself in knowing that there is a reason why I am in the room, so I need to make it count. Sometimes, if you don’t [raise your hand and advocate for yourself], people will be very comfortable looking right over you, and you’ll never get selected. So if you know what your passion is you’ve got to go after it with a vengeance, because you can’t wait for someone to serve it up on a platter for you.”
On advice to young professionals:
“It’s so important for leaders — and particularly women and women of color — to raise [their hands] and sign up for bold and out-of-the-box nontraditional opportunities. But as a young professional, I developed what has been coined now as a serious case of ‘helium hand,’ [which] refers to the phenomenon that many women like myself experience: We take on way too much, [and] our hands go upward almost involuntarily to sign up for yet another project, despite already having a full plate. Perhaps as a young woman, if I had known that the disease of helium hand was incurable, I might have made sure not to catch it. Or at least I would have developed the muscle by now to figure out how to say no much more often. If you say yes to everything, it’ll almost certainly force you to have to say no to something that might be even more important. And quite frankly, at the end of the day, saying yes to everything leaves you exhausted.”
On avoiding burnout and imposter syndrome:
“I am a 23-year-and-counting breast cancer survivor, and at the time when I was diagnosed it was not likely that a woman diagnosed as young as I was would live five years, and here we are 23 years later. I take each day very seriously, and I want to use whatever time I have left in this world to make a difference, and that’s what motivates me, that’s what grounds me.
“As for trying to avoid burnout, as I mentioned earlier, I’m trying to learn how to cure my helium hand and also strategically say no more often. And I want you to know that feelings of imposter syndrome or self-doubt are normal. It’s actually probably much more common than you think, particularly among high-achieving women. Even people who seem to have it all together, we all have some level of self-doubt every now and then. [Finally,] strive for progress, not perfection. We all want to live our best lives and be the best versions of ourselves, but we first have to accept who we are, our flaws and all.”
*Responses have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Watch the full conversation between Richardson-Heron and Beilock:
—VERONICA SUCHODOLSKI ’19