BCBS supporting efforts to increase diversity in medical research

Published September 21, 2020

Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies are working to increase the pool of participants in medical research programs to reflect the diversity and improve the health of Americans.

The Problem

Increasing evidence shows that some racial and ethnic minority groups are experiencing higher rates of infection and hospitalizations for COVID-19. It's not clear what factors are driving this trend, and this lack of understanding has renewed a push to increase the pool of diverse participants involved in medical research. Currently, research participants are primarily white and male. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana (BCBSLA) took a proactive stance by leading a grassroots effort to recruit people from all walks of life to take part in the All of Us Research Program.

What is All of Us?

The All of Us Research Program is run by the National Institutes of Health to help scientists understand more about why people get sick or stay healthy. The program aims to enroll one million people to stay involved in the program for over a decade. Participants are invited to share information about their health, habits and what it's like where they live. The objective of the All of Us Research Program is to use the information collected to accelerate health research and medical breakthroughs that may enable individualized prevention, treatment and care.

"African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities make up less than 10 percent of the people in the United States taking part in clinical trials. Those numbers simply aren't diverse enough," says Roderic Teamer, director of diversity at BCBSLA. "If we want to strive for equity in health care, which is now lacking in communities of color, we have to put ourselves out there and create a database that researchers can use to help communities of color gain equity in healthcare."

Although All of Us is a research program and not a clinical trial, it is an important step in moving historically underrepresented communities to full representation in medical research. To tackle this problem, BCBSLA has led a grassroots effort to meet with church groups, community organizations and college campuses to spread the word and encourage diverse groups in the community to sign up for All of Us. The program considers participants as partners as opposed to subjects of a study. Additional All of Us goals include:

  • Nurture relationships with 1 million participant partners nationwide from all walks of life
  • Catalyze a robust ecosystem of researchers and funders
  • Deliver the largest and richest biomedical data set free for approved, qualified scientists and researchers to access

"The All of Us Research Project promises better treatment, better tests to see if people are sick or getting sick and better information about how much medicine or what kind of medicine is right for each person," says Dr. Emily Vincent, Medical Director at BCBSLA. "By building a large database of health and related data, scientists can speed up critical discoveries that can lead to improved treatments, better health outcomes and longer lives for so many people."

Understanding COVID-19

The grassroots effort is designed in part to address the barriers that have made some minority populations reluctant to participate in medical research. This barrier has limited research of hypertension and cancers that disproportionately affect communities of color. Program coordinators point to the anonymity of the data and the urgent work to understand the coronavirus as reasons they hope will encourage some members of the community to help diversify the pool of data.

"With the knowledge we would gather with All of Us, we could understand what is happening with the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Deirdre Barfield, Senior Medical Director at BCBSLA. “We can find out who it is affecting and why. We don't know the answers to all of these questions. I'm sure we'll use this research for years to come."
Volunteers must be 18 and older. Learn more at Joinallofus.org/LA

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies.