Introducing the COVID Advocacy Exchange

10 February 2021

Pharmaceutical Executive

Cathy Traz of Bristol Myers Squibb outlines the mission of the COVID Advocacy Exchange, a virtual platform that convenes advocacy groups, patients, and industry for increased connection and collaboration.

Cathy Traz, Executive Director & Head of Global Advocacy at Bristol Myers Squibb, talks about her central involvement in the creation of the COVID Advocacy Exchange (CAE), an innovative, virtual platform that convenes advocacy groups, patients, and industry to synchronize efforts, facilitate resource sharing and provide an opportunity for increased connection and collaboration—both now and over the long-term.

PharmExec: Can you outline the purpose and the work of the COVID Advocacy Exchange?

Cathy Traz: As part of our continued commitment to patients worldwide, Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) regularly engages in communication with the global patient advocacy community across disease areas. This commitment was especially important in 2020 as we worked to better understand how patient advocates and those they serve were impacted by the pandemic. Through our conversations with advocates, we learned that their biggest concerns related to the pandemic were — and continue to be — time and capacity constraints, infrastructure needs, and the lasting financial impact of the current crisis. In response to these urgent needs, BMS and GRYT Health collaborated to launch the COVID Advocacy Exchange (CAE) in May 2020, an entirely virtual platform. With the CAE, our mission is to unite advocacy organizations, patients, and industry leaders to facilitate resource sharing and collaboration during the pandemic and beyond.

Who is the platform intended for and what can they get from it?

The CAE was designed for anyone who considers themselves to be a patient advocate. In our virtual live sessions, we are joined by representatives of patient advocacy groups and members of their communities, as well as health care providers and other caregivers and members of industry. I think the diversity of participants’ perspectives, in addition to their willingness to be vulnerable, are a few elements that really enrich our discussions. The discussion-based format also enables participants to engage in the topics that matter most to them and share resources that they find meaningful. In this way, they’re collaborators and co-creators of the platform.

Also, to give some more color to how utilized the CAE has been since launching in May, I’m proud to share that more than 25,000 people have visited the platform from 95 countries. In this time, the CAE has hosted more than 15 live discussion sessions, which, while based around a central topic or theme, have also created a safe space as I alluded to earlier for honest and authentic dialogue. For those who are unable to join the discussions live, session recordings are available in the platform’s virtual Auditorium to stream on-demand, 24/7 as is the Exhibitor Hall where advocacy organizations can share information across disease areas — more than 5,000 people have accessed these resources so far — all for free.

What is and has been your role in establishing and supporting the Exchange?

In my current role leading BMS Advocacy and the Global Advocacy Digital Health Initiative, I am responsible for integrating the patient and advocate voice into the company as well as advocating for patient-focused biopharmaceutical innovation. Much of my work is informed by my experience in patient advocacy, particularly my previous work with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I have seen how the patient voice can produce meaningful change across all sectors of the health care industry.

In 2019, I had the pleasure of attending GRYT Health’s Global Virtual Cancer Conference, an annual patient-centric virtual event to discuss relevant topics in cancer care. It was clear to me that GRYT Health had the potential to connect individuals across the advocacy space as a digital health company. Soon after the pandemic began, I reached out to GRYT Health CEO, Dave Fuehrer, asking if he would be willing to collaborate with BMS on a platform designed to support patient advocates and their communities in response to the pandemic. Clearly, the answer was, “yes!” We are so lucky to have found a partner who shares in our mission of elevating the patient voice and is committed to finding new and innovative ways to collaborate from a distance.

What is BMS’ involvement specifically, and what can companies like BMS continue to do to support and act on the needs of patients during COVID?

As I mentioned, BMS co-created the CAE with our partner, GRYT Health. As industry leaders experienced in connecting with patient advocacy organizations and individual advocates, both companies actively work to communicate directly with the CAE community and provide them with the information and resources they need. Such direct communication enables us to achieve our goals of developing engaging content that is truly relevant for CAE participants.

When supporting and acting on the needs of patients during the pandemic — and beyond, I think it’s key to remember to listen to them and be receptive to feedback, continuously strive to make information and programs accessible through diverse content channels, and make an effort to be a global citizen — be humble.

What were the takeaways from the Exchange’s recent panel discussion, Advocacy for Advancements: Patient Insight Influencing Action?

Our most recent session was a wonderful way to start the new year with the CAE community. Our panellists included representatives from StopAfib, the European Patients’ Academy on Therapeutic Innovation (EUPATI), and HTAi Patient and Citizen Involvement Group, all highlighting the importance of integrating the patient voice in pharmaceutical development. Our speakers emphasized that patients and caregivers who engage in pharmaceutical research and development – whether it be through clinical trials, focus groups, or otherwise – provide valuable insights that help create therapies with patients’ needs in mind. However, patients and their support systems must be equipped with necessary information and proper training to effectively advocate for themselves and others. Patient organizations like those represented on the panel and BMS fill a much-needed role in facilitating patient education and inviting patients to provide input throughout the lifecycle of a pharmaceutical therapy. For anyone who was unable to join us for this discussion, I encourage you to visit the COVID Advocacy Exchange to watch the session on-demand.

How do you see the platform evolving in the next few months as the world moves forward with rolling out vaccination programs?

When I think about the evolution of the CAE over the last year, one of the things I’m especially proud of is the platform’s ability to adapt to meet the changing needs of our colleagues in the patient advocacy space. The expansion of vaccination programs will certainly impact the needs of patient advocates and how they serve their communities. I’m encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive feedback the CAE has received thus far and look forward to shaping the platform with GRYT Health to be a space where we can recognize the hope created by the vaccine, offer support and reassurance in moments of uncertainty, and provide information and resources to facilitate informed health decisions.

This year, the platform will continue as a broader “Advocacy Exchange” that will explore topics beyond COVID-19 and will include even more support for the advocacy community. For example, we will continue offering virtual live events and provide on-demand content in addition to new Exhibitor Resources. We’re excited to debut new working groups focused on health equity, the patient voice, telemedicine, COVID-19 impact reduction, and practical activities to support communities. Participants can also look forward to a new resource library.

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