Author: Kate Silver
Dara Richardson-Heron, M.D., likes to say that she’s a physician by trade, and an advocate by choice. In so many ways, that philosophy makes her the ideal person to be Pfizer’s new Chief Patient Officer. In this role, she’s working to ensure that the patient is at the center of everything Pfizer does.
Her patient-centric approach has been shaped by her years of experience serving in public health (she was chief engagement officer and scientific executive for the National Institutes of Health All of Us research program) as well as non-profits (she’s been CEO with YWCA USA, as well as with the Greater NYC Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and National Chief Medical Officer at United Cerebral Palsy of New York City). But she says it’s her early days as a doctor that have made an indelible mark in her passion for putting patients first.
“From the outset of my medical career, I knew that I wanted to make an impact beyond what could be achieved in a typical medical practice. My training, experiences and incredible exposure at New York University Medical School and Bellevue Hospital provided me with many formative moments. It was there, where I saw many patients who, through no fault of their own, presented with late-stage diseases. Among other things, my experiences as a young physician opened my eyes to the reality that health disparities are real and access to health care was not a given,” says Richardson-Heron.
Just weeks into her new role, which she began in early 2020, we sat down to talk about her job as Pfizer's Chief Patient Officer, her goals for the new position and the mark she hopes to leave on the world.
What interested you in the CPO role at Pfizer?
Pfizer’s longstanding history of innovation and breakthroughs. As a physician, whose family and patients’ lives have been enhanced, extended or even saved by biopharmaceuticals and most importantly, as a 23-year-and-counting breast cancer survivor who is alive and well today because of ‘breakthroughs that change patients’ lives,’ Pfizer has always been a company whose mission I believe in fully.
As a breast cancer survivor, you’ve seen the medical profession from both sides of the bench. What kinds of things did you learn, as a patient, that have influenced you as a physician and now as CPO?
From a physicians’ standpoint, it is so important to have the empathy, the focus, and also to make sure you’re listening to and hearing what your patients are or are not saying. Because when you get a diagnosis, irrespective of who you are, it puts you in a different mindset. And you need to have people around you who are there to kind of kick in when you might not be able to make the best decisions.
As a medical professional, I’m excited about how far we’ve come in treating cancer and other chronic health conditions, and I’m certainly optimistic and excited about what’s to come with the advances that are being made, how we recruit people for clinical trials, how we engage patients in research and how we’re really focusing on patients and their needs. I’m excited about this new wave of patient centricity, so that we can really make sure that we’re getting the scientific knowledge and information that we need, while also interacting with patients in a way that adds value to their lives.
What excites you most about your new role?
My new role at Pfizer provides me with the opportunity to continue doing what I love—enhancing health and healthcare by working collaboratively with brilliant colleagues, patients, caregivers, community partners, and others. Together, I’m excited to identify, develop and implement creative and innovative ideas and solutions designed to maximize patient safety, ensure that patients’ voices are heard, increase diversity in clinical trials and overcome barriers to accessing quality and affordable health care.
I am also working to ensure that Pfizer is the most patient-centric company. On that journey, it will be imperative for us to work in partnership to co-create and implement a fresh, new coordinated and participant-focused process and framework designed to ensure that Pfizer puts patients first in everything we do—both now and in the future.
What does a patient-centric interaction look like?
It’s really not complicated. A patient centric interaction should look like one where I as the doctor, or I as the researcher, am meeting with and hearing from patients. And instead of making decisions about what I think is best for them, talking to patients about where their preferences lie and which options work best for them.
Prior to joining Pfizer you worked at NIH. What are some ways that role has shaped you, and how will that help you in your new role?
In my role as Chief Engagement Officer and Scientific Executive for the All of Us Research Program, I led efforts to enroll, engage and retain 1 million or more volunteers in a landmark research study designed to advance innovative health research. I was also responsible for championing the voice of participants and forging partnerships with health care professionals, national and community-based organizations to raise awareness, interest and excitement about the program.
While at NIH, I was also reminded of the tremendous opportunity and responsibility we have, not only to increase diversity in clinical trials as a moral, scientific and ethical imperative, but also to increase the pool and pipeline of diverse clinical researchers, scientific investigators, referring physicians and research coordinators/clinical trial teams on the front lines in research efforts. All these efforts will go a long way towards helping us ensure that the body of clinical knowledge gained from research efforts will be beneficial for everyone, not just a select few.
What drew you into healthcare?
My parents told me that while in my ‘terrific twos,’ I declared to them and anyone else who would listen that I wanted to be a doctor. I am not entirely sure what drove my aspiration as a 2-year-old, but as a very young child, I saw many positive interactions between my grandparents and their beloved “GP” or General Practitioner, the name used for doctors specializing in primary health care in those days. I also had a female pediatrician, which was relatively unusual at the time. Seeing my grandparents’ physician and my own pediatrician in action as caregivers, helping others to live healthier lives, shaped my interest in the medical profession and healthcare.
What keeps you up at night?
Injustice, inequity, inhumanity and indifference. It’s hard to read the news these days without seeing one or all of these elements. Though I often lose sleep when I witness these calamities, it only serves to strengthen my resolve to continue using my time, talents and treasure to make the world a better place. My parents regularly recited the phrase, “To whom much is given, much is required,” so for me, doing what I can to leave the world in a better place because I was here is not just a nice thing to do—it’s a life-long requirement.
As Chief Patient Officer, how do you hope to leave the world a better place?
I think if I am able to shift the paradigm to a place where we are truly patient-centric in a way that we are thinking about how the patient will benefit from everything we do, then I will feel like I have left my legacy on the world.