Growing up in the Bronx, “I saw a lot of people dying at relatively young ages from chronic diseases,” says Owen Garrick, M.D. That’s not uncommon in communities like his New York City neighborhood, which today would be considered “underserved.” And it’s become Dr. Garrick’s mission to make it a lot less common.
After completing med school at Yale and getting an MBA from Wharton, Dr. Garrick focused his energy on figuring out how to improve health outcomes for Black men. He wanted to see what he could do to help people like those who died young in his neighborhood—“people who supported me as I grew up,” he says—lead longer and fuller lives.
For him, that didn’t just mean advising individual patients on ways to boost their health; it meant changing the system, too. He’s now tackling a problem that’s plagued medicine for decades: inadequate representation of all ethnic groups in clinical trials.
Twenty-nine years ago, Congress passed the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act, which mandated an appropriate inclusion of minorities in all NIH-funded research. Yet the problem still exists to this day. Even during the recent Covid-19 vaccine trials, only 3 percent of participants were Black, while Black people accounted for 21 percent of Covid deaths, according to a study in The Lancet in April.
Without the participation of racially diverse groups, putting an end to illnesses that have consistently plagued communities of color at higher rates, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, cancer, and diabetes, remains challenging. Here’s why: To know whether what you’re testing in these trials works, you have to test it on the people who will use it.
Dr. Garrick is undeterred by the severity of the issue. “The greatest innovation happens where the greatest unmet need is,” he says. For 15 years, he pushed for change through his work at Bridge Clinical Research, a global clinical health research and health communications firm, where he became a leader in research and research ethics. Now he’s aiming to do even more at CVS Health as the chief medical officer of Clinical Trial Services, a business the company established last year.
With clinical trials, the biggest barriers to entry are access and awareness as well as trust, Dr. Garrick says. One key to trust became obvious in research he helped conduct that was published in the American Economic Review in 2019. It confirmed that Black men were far more likely to sign up for preventive health services if they discussed them with a Black doctor than with someone of a different race.
So it makes sense to recruit people for trials within their own communities. That’s where CVS offers an advantage, with stores “within five miles of over 40 percent of the ‘vulnerable population’…in the U.S.,” according to the company. It defines a “vulnerable population” as one with a Social Vulnerability Index score of 0.5 or above. CVS also gets fraternities and sororities, faith-based communities, and grassroots organizations into the act to help increase awareness of relevant trials. So far, “over 40 percent of the patients that CVS Health refers to studies have been non-Caucasian,” he says.
Ultimately, Dr. Garrick expects there to be a real improvement in the health of minority populations and the overall U.S. population within the next five years. Systemic problems can seem huge and intractable, but he’s hoping the progress made in clinical trial enrollment “inspires people to come up with even more creative solutions to the problems diverse communities face.”
This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series running across Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of Black culture on American life, and to spotlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the complete portfolio.