Diversity: well and truly out of lockdown

Diversity in healthcare advertising has never been more important.
Photo of TV grid with different skin colours

At a time when COVID-19 could have pushed diversity and inclusion way down the list of business priorities, it’s reinforced its place at the top of the industry’ agenda. 
COVID speaks to everything that matters in the diversity agenda. This is especially the case in healthcare marketing where we not only need to understand all our audiences, we need to communicate using language and messaging that’s appropriate to – and resonates with – specific and diverse communities.
In the earliest phases of the pandemic, the experts advised us that COVID didn’t discriminate. Scientifically at least, that’s still true. However, it quickly became clear that some groups are at greater risk than others. Last year, a Public Health England report highlighted a disproportionate number of COVID deaths in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. That trend has continued as we’ve moved through the second wave. According to the COVID Racial Data Tracker, more than 50,000 black Americans had died from COVID at the close of 2020.

We continue to see the damage COVID is inflicting on poorer, marginalised and disabled communities. And there are growing concerns that persistent health inequalities will have a negative impact on vaccine acceptance among ethnic communities, perpetuating the problem and undermining our ability to escape the pandemic.

Enough is enough.

COVID is a pandemic of diversity. And the answers to it must be equally diverse.
Before the outbreak, we created a film about diversity in healthcare communications. Why? Because we have to improve the diversity ratio within healthcare agencies. Our organisations must embrace diversity in its fullest sense – diversity of thought, talent, voice and opportunity. We have to understand our audiences better so we can tailor campaigns to the needs of specific communities. We need to create material in all languages and formats. We need to create digital platforms that are adapted for patients with accessibility challenges. And content for people with dyslexia, autism or ADHD. And much more. Quite simply, we need to build the most diverse creative departments in the industry, outside and in. 
We’re seeing small pockets of diversity work; Ikea’s ThisAbles products, made with people with disabilities, and Xbox Adaptive Controller are great, award-winning examples.  But we need to keep pushing. As an industry we’re really trying. For our film, director Richard Paris Wilson and myself brought together VMLY&Rx, Publicis Health, Havas Lynx and VCCP Health to discuss the issues and debate solutions – and saw a real appetite for change. The last 12 months has only heightened the need.
The key thing is: we need to do more to open up to diverse communities.  We must embrace  – and co-create campaigns with – patients with different disabilities.  In my own organisation, for example, alongside Microsoft, we’re collaborating to find ways of supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. When I was working at Amazon, we had an empty chair in all meetings that represented the customer. In healthcare, we need many more chairs. And we need them filled with patients, doctors, carers and consumers from all backgrounds.

There’s so much more to explore. Like unconscious bias training (which many of us are already doing); educating a more diverse range of medical students about our industry; creating communications with patients; making offices accessible for people with disabilities; running workshops with our teams on how to create educational patient platforms that are accessible for all types of patients. And this is just scratching the surface. We need to go deeper, and quickly. 
The pandemic has reinforced the importance of diversity and inclusion – not just in the workplace, but in our creative thinking and mindsets too. But we must go further. As our film illustrates, if we want to eradicate health inequalities, we must embrace difference and put diversity at the heart of everything we do.
Faisal Ahmed is Head of Innovation at VMLY&Rx London. @advertisingwala