Foreword: The following is an abbreviated and edited transcript from the latest Medtech Trailblazers, the real stories behind the Innovators, Fogarty Innovation’s series of casual, in-depth conversations aimed at getting to know the people who are forging our industry. To view part 1 of the videocast, click here; to listen to part 1 of the podcast, click here.
This month’s MedTech Trailblazers segment expands our focus from those who forged our industry to include someone who is currently disrupting, innovating and leading in the field. As head of digital optimization, real-world evidence clinical trials for Walgreens Boots Alliance, Kendal Whitlock aims to improve efficiency, access and diversity in clinical studies—work she describes not as a job, but as a calling.
Kendal studied pre-med and earned a master’s in public health, and has focused her 20-year career in pharma on designing and running better clinical trials. As the cornerstone of our industry, we all know that clinical trials are vital and yet, they are complex, expensive, time-consuming and often burdensome for patients—and they can be a major challenge for young companies with limited resources.
Andrew Cleeland (AC) had the pleasure of chatting with Kendal (KW) to learn more about her fascinating journey, her vision for the future of more effective clinical trials and lessons learned along the way from important mentors in her life. The following is an excerpt of the interview.
AC. Tell us about your formative years and the influence that art had on your aspirations.
KW. I grew up in a small town, South Orange, New Jersey, which was only 30 minutes away from New York City by train, where my parents worked. When I got older, we would spend most of our weekends in New York, which had a lot to offer in terms of theaters and museums.
Later, I sat on a board for Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, which has been a great way to contribute back to the college, which features work by and about African-Americans or women of the African diaspora from anywhere.
AC. There was a relationship that was particularly important to you in high school. Can you tell us about it?
KW. That would be Mrs. Wright, my seventh-grade health education teacher, who just recently retired after 40 years in the school system. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish community, there weren’t many people or students of color, so it was nice to have a teacher of color. I couldn’t believe there was someone who looked like me at school.
Mrs. Wright was a role model for many in the school. She was the teacher kids wanted to be around, talk to and learn from. That was certainly the case for me, and I believe the appetite I have for science came from her. She had a knack for explaining important topics in a way that we could understand, such as cancer, which my grandmother died of, but nobody talked about it at the time. So for example, if the topic was lung cancer or esophageal cancer, she would explain what happens if you smoke—giving you enough information to scare you into knowing that should not be a choice you made for yourself.
It electrified me in so many ways to think that I could learn how to prevent negative health consequences. I felt empowered as I understood we could take action in solving health issues, and that left me with a feeling of wanting to empower others as well.
I decided to apply that knowledge to my dad, who smoked two packs of Winstons a day. Because Mrs. Wright made me feel I could change his trajectory, I began writing notes urging him to stop smoking and put them everywhere: in his coat pocket, in between his socks, inside every nook and cranny of his apartment. Eventually he quit and stayed tobacco-free, which changed the course of his life and gave me confidence that I could positively affect someone’s health outcomes.
AC. After high school you went to Rutgers University and then Yale University School of Medicine, but not to become a doctor. Tell us about it.
KW. Prior to Rutgers I went to Spelman College, where I did a two-year research honors program that gave me the “bug” for doing clinical research. I graduated and finished my thesis, but wasn’t satisfied with the information I found in the social science libraries. It was too theoretical, and I was looking to understand specific questions and hence needed more evidence. Eventually I discovered where the biology and chemistry students were doing their research papers, which was the physical sciences libraryand here I was like a kid at the candy store.
This led me to Rutgers University because I wanted to learn more so I spent three years in a pre-med program. What appealed to me about medicine was the continuous learning—doctors are staying up on the latest medical developments their entire career. I ended up working in the Institute of Aging and Health at Rutgers, which was my first exposure to working on clinical trials. It was fascinating to look at disease processes, not just in a textbook, but actually through the experiences patients were having.
The program at Yale was very intensive and truly reinforced my passion for life sciences. It motivated me to be the bridge for those who don’t have access to a prestigious institution like Yale. I want to take the knowledge I gained and make it approachable and understandable to all. I wanted to be like Mrs. Wright was to me.
AC. Tell us about your first jobs.
KW. After graduating from the School of Public Health at Columbia, I went to Atlanta and worked at Emory School of Public Health with Dr. Joyce Eissien, who was on loan from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and at the time was the most senior-ranking African-American woman at the center. She was an incredible inspiration and influence in my life. I later went to the Fulton County Health Department, which was my first hands-on public health role, where I worked to track the exposure to STDs and HIV, which was an epidemic at the time.
I was later offered the opportunity to work as a medical science liaison for Forest Laboratories where my job was to read medical literature and work on investigator-initiated trials and go to medical meetings—things I already loved to do. I was talking to thought leaders to find out their research interests and how the industry could help support them. It was tailor-made for me and wasn’t like working at all.
AC. Along the way you were exposed to some of the inequities in healthcare. Tell us about your impact there.
KW. When I worked at Forest Laboratories, there were a number of cardiologists who were perplexed as to why some patients didn’t respond to medication the way they thought they should. The experience also eroded the patients’ trust in medicine.
At the time I had a side project doing a needs assessment on the issue of underrepresentation in clinical trials when I was still in the medical education group. If more patients benefit from a drug, everyone wins. The outcome of my work was the inaugural symposium for the Elijah Saunders lecture on improving diversity in clinical trials. For me, this was a full-circle moment because Elijah Saunders, MD, was my mentor when I started in the industry. He would invite me to high-level meetings and tell me to quietly observe and learn. And it has been so incredible to watch him as someone who has been instrumental in helping to move this needle on inequity.
AC. Tell us about your path to working at Walgreens.
KW. Another former employer, Boehringer Ingelheim, was a 130+ year old, family-owned business, and I worked in different departments over my tenure of over 13 years. I gained exposure, participated in leadership development programs, traveled to India to work with women’s self-help groups as part of the corporate social responsibility activities and learned from leaders in all facets in different corners of the globe.
However, while I had the opportunity to continue advancing my career at the company, my mom got very sick and was in intensive care, so I prioritized her and decided to leave the company. I have no regrets with my decision; it was where I needed to be.
And then earlier this year, a friend of mine made a connection between all the things that I’m into and someone else she knew. That’s how I came to be introduced to Ramita Tandon, the chief clinical trials officer at Walgreens, who’s now my boss. She’s very committed to solving inequities and health disparities, and specifically addressing cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death and yet almost 100% preventable.
AC. What is Walgreen’s approach to solving inequities?
KW. Ramita introduced me to Walgreens’ vision to transform the retail pharmacy to a healthcare company. The organization has formed a number of strategic partnerships, such as with VillageMD primary providers, which allowed us to expand our primary care presence to communities across the country.
We have 9,000 Walgreens stores—78% of Americans live within five miles of a Walgreens store—and almost 7,000 of them have a private health room. Our industry has talked for decades about how the distance to clinical trial sites is a barrier to participation. But now that we are close to where people are, we can bring research to people where they live. And that is game changing.
We’re aiming to move from the traditional model of a retail store to one that is care-centric. Someone who can’t get to a physical store can have that service provided to them in their home, or we can build digital relationships that enable us to do a decentralized clinical trial where they don’t have to go to the site for every single study visit but instead can use our private health rooms, which is much more convenient.
AC. Every successful career has had a failure or two along the way. Assuming you have too – how did you get through?
KW. Failures are necessary; in fact I remember reading back in graduate school that you learn more from failures than you do from success. Viewed through that lens, a failure for me means that I need to focus my energy on what I’m trying to do and hoping for, not what happened in the past. A failure is a fact. And we can make two choices at that time. We can choose to stew in the failure, or we can take a step in a different direction to decide what to do next. Taking that first step can be the hardest, but shows you’re committing to a better reality.
AC. Some of our audience are in the early stages of their career. What advice would you give them?
KW. Be true to what’s really inside, not just what you’ve built up or the things you’ve done because often those are from early influences of what people told us we should do. But it might not be who you really wanna be or do. So when I say be true to yourself, I don’t mean it as a cliche, I mean really own “you.”
If I could leave the next generation with anything, it’s to not quit or have failure stop you. But sometimes you also don’t know what’s around the corner. I have left companies that I treasured, where I had great relationships with smart, dedicated people. I didn’t want to say goodbye, but it was the right thing for me because otherwise I wouldn’t have even known what was possible. Life is short, so trust yourself and keep going.