Walgreens plans to launch clinical trials with drugmakers and biotech manufacturers later this year, in what executives say is an attempt to increase recruitment and diversity in medical research.
The retail giant will utilize its network of primary care, home health and in-store clinics and pharmacies to staff the trials, and hire more physicians to oversee the research. Walgreens also will tap its database of pharmacy customers to identify patients who are eligible for certain trials and has formed a partnership with medical data company Pluto Health to access patient medical records.
Walgreens said it will use that data to increase participation of racial and ethnic minorities by targeting communication to those groups. According to the company, more than half of its 9,000 stores are located in socially vulnerable areas.
Leading the initiative as chief clinical trials officer will be Ramita Tandon. She previously served as chief operating officer for clinical data company Trio Health and was executive vice president of global research firm ICON.
Tandon said Walgreens is talking with drug and biotech manufacturers to launch post-market and phase-three trials and plans to launch the first trial by year's end.
"Our goal is to leverage a number of our assets within Walgreens and our partnerships to help support us identifying patients for clinical trials in a more targeted fashion and then bring trials to patients where we can afford more convenience to our patients as they want to participate in clinical research," Tandon said.
In April, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance to the healthcare industry to create plans to enroll more diverse participants in clinical trials. People of color have been historically underrepresented in biomedical research: according to the FDA, approximately 75% of clinical trail participants are white, and fewer than 10% are Black or Asian.
Walgreens hopes to use its physical footprint, as well as its various care models, to engage with prospective trial participants and offer them flexibility that includes telehealth, in-person and hybrid models, Tandon said. The company also plans to use patient engagement software to inform people of their eligibility and educate them on the importance of medical research.
Last year, Walgreens Boots Alliance invested $5.2 billion into primary care startup VillageMD and $300 million into home health company CareCentrix, two transactions that expanded its clinical footprint and will aid with the trials initiative. Also last year, it invested $970 million in specialty pharmacy Shields Health Solutions, and Walgreens plans to use the specialty pharmacy to coordinate research for patients with chronic health conditions.
The Walgreens initiative will help increase enrollment in clinical trials by expanding the number of access points and help mediate trust barriers that exist in underserved communities, said Otis Johnson, chief diversity, inclusion and sustainability officer at Clario, which provides clinical trial data management services.
"There has been some serious clinical trial atrocities in the past and that has lingered. The idea of having a trusted person to speak with is really appealing," Johnson said.
"Walgreens is already located in those communities and they've already established some amount of trust," Johnson said. "They are essentially bringing the trials into the communities where we need to get access to patients and bring more diversity into the clinical trials."
With large swaths of patient data, retail pharmacies are also uniquely positioned to ensure diversity in research because they already gather race and ethnicity data. Just 43% of clinical trials conducted from 2000-2020 collected such information, according to a study The Lancet published in April. Nearly half of Walgreens 9,000 locations are located in areas that have been historically left out of medical research, according to the company.
"One of the things that a company like Walgreens will bring to the table here is that," Johnson said.