Earvin “Magic” Johnson, NBA champion and chairman and chief executive officer of the Johnson Development Corp., came to IIR’s 17th Annual Partnerships with CROs in Las Vegas, Nevada, with a mission—to urge pharma to increase minority participation in clinical trials. But, he left, quite possibly, with an even bigger mission—to become a celebrity spokesperson for minority patient recruitment.
Johnson began a talk that touched on the personal and professional and made people laugh as well as reflect by pointing out some important statistics.
“Half of America will be minorities in 40 years. We must get them involved. We must do a better job to educate them. They have to take part in what’s going on in medicine,” said Johnson. “I’m going to do my part. I know the reason I’m standing here 16 years [after being diagnosed with HIV] is because someone participated in a clinical trial.”
During his talk, Johnson discussed the anguish of having to tell his wife about his HIV diagnosis and his fears at that time for both her health and their baby’s health. (His wife was pregnant at the time and both his wife and child were healthy.) He discussed the physical and emotional difficulties of receiving an HIV diagnosis in those days.
“When I first announced [in 1991] that I had HIV, we only had one drug—AZT. My doctor started off having me take it 15 times a day because I’m big. It’s the only time I wished I wasn’t tall,” he joked. “Now there are 26 drugs,” Johnson said in gratitude to the hundreds of clinical researchers present at his talk.
Johnson spends much of his time speaking at churches and high schools—and even at junior high schools, to his chagrin—about HIV and AIDS. He shared some of the misconceptions that he has heard from those who attend his talks. “There was a rumor that ‘Magic doesn’t have HIV no more.’ That was a problem in the community. Also, ‘because he’s lived 16 years with it, I can have unprotected sex, and I’ll be okay,’” he said.
Johnson stressed the need for education about HIV/AIDS. He cited the stigma that people attach to it, one that he is trying to remove one talk at a time. He said the problem isn’t that minorities don’t get tested for HIV. They do. “The problem is we don’t go back to get the results,” he said.
He made clear that he knows there is more work to do if minorities are going to participate in clinical trials, and that it must be done in a certain way to be effective.
“We need to get more minorities in clinical trials. But minorities are particular about the message, and we’re particular about who’s the messenger. It can’t be you,” Johnson said to a predominantly white audience. “It has to be someone in their community. I hopefully will get others involved to deliver that message. I’m going to get myself educated more to deliver that message,” he said.
Johnson also expressed the need for Hispanics to have a spokesperson from their community to increase minority participation, and he mentioned the need to get minority physicians on board as well.
Minority participation in clinical trials has been low since clinical trials first started being conducted in the U.S., for a variety of reasons—healthcare access issues, mistrust, the absence of a consistent policy regarding FDA-approved clinical trials and lack of a medical journal policy among them. You can read the EDICT White Paper here.
Two audience members asked how minority participation in clinical trials could be increased, and there seemed to be a moment during his answers when Johnson and everyone else in the room realized that perhaps he was the key. “We all have been doing our part individually, different companies. How can we work together? What can I do? What can you do? I’m looking forward to working with you, making this a reality,” Johnson said.
He finished to a long standing ovation.
If Magic Johnson can increase minority participation in clinical trials to a significant degree by lending his celebrity, his knowledge and his life story to the effort, that will truly be something to cheer about.