For the second year in a row, life sciences giant Johnson & Johnson has provided financial support and mentorship to three organizations in Philadelphia that aim to eliminate health inequities for people of color.
Philadelphia is one of the most impoverished cities in the United States. The city has a poverty rate of 23%, which is more than double the national average. The city has a majority-minority population, with a demographic breakdown of 44% African American, 14% Latino, and 36% Caucasian. The healthcare inequity across the racial divide is highlighted by the lack of insurance coverage and adequate access to healthcare for black and brown communities. It’s into this landscape, along with five other cities across the United States, that Johnson & Johnson has introduced its Health Equity Innovation Challenge. Last year, J&J introduced the challenge that is slowly but surely making an impact in the City of Brotherly Love.
The challenge provides financial support and mentorship to selected organizations making a key difference through innovative solutions that seek to reduce the inequities among these communities. The latest J&J Health Equity Innovation Challenge recipients in Philadelphia are eCLOSE Institute, which is inspiring diversity in science through STEM education and job training for students from under-resourced schools; Maternity Care Coalition, an organization focused on reducing infant mortality rates among minority communities through its Perinatal Community Health Worker Program that has trained more than 200 perinatal community health workers; and tech startup Viora Health, which is creating a personalized engagement solution to address social and behavioral determinants for conditions like pre-diabetes, diabetes and obesity, all indications that overwhelmingly impact communities of color.
Even before the pandemic, Philadelphia’s communities of color faced severe health inequities. But the last two and half years have put an even brighter spotlight on these disparities and unmet health needs. This city’s poverty rates and pregnancy-related deaths are the highest in the country. Additionally, 60% of children in the city attend low-achieving schools, with minority children over-represented at the lowest performing schools.
The eCLOSE Institute has developed a classroom-based “project in a box” that brings teachers, scientists, and students together to investigate solutions that address the health issues prevalent in their own communities. The institute provides lab kits to school groups in Philadelphia, as well as in other locations, that allow the students to become researchers and explore drivers in diseases that typically affect their communities in higher numbers, such as diabetes or prostate cancer. The student researchers are also tasked with examining holistic approaches that may be commonly recommended against the diseases and see the results on a cellular level.
“This is a training program. We are putting the equipment in their [the students] hands and letting every student know they have the potential to be a biomedical researcher,” said Alana O’Reilly, Executive Director and Chief Scientific Officer of eCLOSE Institute.
O’Reilly added that this is a hands-on approach to science, rather than a traditional lecture, which increases student engagement. She also explained that most of the students have an understanding of the impacts of these diseases because they have seen it in their families and communities. Because of that, she said the students are motivated to participate in the research and then take that information back to their families.
“The students are generating data from their studies,” Dara Ruiz-Whalen, Chief Learning Officer and Executive Director of eCLOSE added.
Both O’Reilly and Ruiz-Whalen expressed their gratitude for being selected by J&J for the program. eCLOSE, along with the two other recipients, will share seed funding from a pool of more than $1 million from Johnson & Johnson Services, Inc. They are also eligible for mentorship from the Johnson & Johnson JLABS ecosystem, which provides educational programming, visibility, and networking opportunities with experts and venture capitalists
Kiera Smalls, Co-Founder of Strides, Executive Director of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition and Johnson & Johnson Health Equity Innovation Challenge Judge in Philadelphia, is serving as a mentor to eCLOSE. She said the Health Equity Innovation Challenge has allowed all three Philadelphia companies to raise their profile and increase their potential for helping the minority communities in the city. She said the access to the funds, as well as the JLABS mentorship will allow the organizations to amplify their capabilities and connect with a broader network.
“When Johnson & Johnson comes along and says ‘we see you Philadelphia,’ that’s great to be seen, to be invested in, and to be thought about,” she said.
Melanie Fray, Chief Executive Officer of Maternity Care Coalition (MCC), expressed gratitude for J&J’s support of its Perinatal Community Health Worker Program. Grounded in a reproductive justice framework that supports minority communities most impacted by poverty and entrenched systemic racism, Fray said MCC’s program offers doula and breastfeeding support and helps pregnant families prepare for childbirth. Throughout the birthing process, MCC provides support for the families and that same support continues following the birth in order to “promote improved health outcomes and positive parent-infant bonding. Fray said that the J&J funding will contribute to the organization’s vision and its goal for families impacted by racial and social inequities “can birth with dignity, parent with autonomy, and raise babies who are healthy, growing, and thriving.”
Deboleena Dutta, Founder and CEO of Viora Health, said the company’s mission is to engage underserved populations who often struggle to manage their healthcare goals due to social and behavioral barriers. Dutta explained that Viora’s text-based technology solution and programs wrap around existing healthcare workflows to workflows to reduce costs of care for patients with social needs by empowering them to better access healthcare at home.
“As an awardee for HEIC, we look forward to accessing mentors within J&J, reaching new partners, and scaling our programs to go beyond disease prevention to hypertension and diabetes management,” Dutta said.
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Alex Keown is a freelance journalist who writes about a variety of subjects including the pharma, biotech, and life science industries. Prior to freelancing, Alex has served as a staff writer and editor for several publications.