Q&A: From the CDC to Gilead Sciences, Rashad Burgess works local for national change in HIV community
The Covid pandemic set back progress in another pandemic, HIV, to devastating effect. Few likely know that as well as Rashad Burgess, the head of Gilead Sciences’ HIV community operations and overseeing the pharma company’s local ambassadors in cities across the US.
For the first time in 40 years, there were months when more people were dropping out of HIV treatment than enrolling, Burgess said. The prevalence is particularly pronounced in the South, which even before the pandemic accounted for 51% of new HIV diagnoses, according to the CDC – and its only gotten worse in the past 21 months.
That’s part of the reason why he’s spent the last few months recruiting new ambassadors – Gilead is boosting its local HIV community force from 26 to 35 people.
However, far from being defeated or even disappointed by Covid challenges, Burgess is energized. He said the setback “fuels my fire” to double down on HIV prevention and treatment and remind people that the HIV public health pandemic didn’t disappear when the new coronavirus one arrived.
Burgess joined Gilead eight years ago as an HIV community liaison. He stepped into the local role, moving from a national role at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its HIV and AIDS prevention division.
He wanted to take on the smaller, more individual contributor role, and did so for several years as well as a stint in sales. However, Burgess is now back in a national role.
He took on the executive director role leading community leadership just a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic and has since been like most people dealing with the pandemic’s personal and professional impact.
Burgess is a Chicago native who now lives in Atlanta with his husband Bishop OC Allen and their children – and who were named one of the coolest Black families in Atlanta by Ebony magazine several years ago. He talked to MarketingRx editor Beth Snyder Bulik about his long-time work in HIV, Gilead community work and why boots on the ground matter.
You came to Gilead from the CDC, right? What did you do there?
When I left CDC, I was the chief of the capacity building branch for the division of HIV and AIDS prevention. So essentially, my role was overseeing all training and technical assistance for the HIV prevention workforce for the entire country. Community-based organizations, AIDS service organizations, health centers and health departments were all under my purview when it came to training and technical assistance. People often joke about the fact that I know everyone. I don’t really know everyone, but I know a lot of the HIV prevention workforce because they oftentimes had to come through my shop in some form or fashion for their respective training.
But there’s still so much work being done that needs to be done. Fortunately, Gilead has allowed me to work with those relationships that I’ve had and really build on those as the field has grown. We have interventions that allow us to have a greater role in actually preventing the spread of HIV as well as treating HIV, so it’s really been an incredible opportunity.
How has your role changed in the eight years now that you’ve been with Gilead?
I started as a community liaison. I had this really big job at CDC and left to take on a very specific individual contributor role at Gilead. I was a community liaison, working with organizations and health departments and health centers in northern Florida and all of Georgia. From that role I grew into a number of roles to include leadership as part of the community team, and then had a number of roles in our sales organizations. I actually helped do some building out of our HIV prevention PrEP salesforce. Then two years ago, I took on the national responsibility of leading the HIV community.
And what do you do as national leader of the community team?
We have a team of community liaisons around the country that are responsible for working with allied health care professionals and patients in providing education both in terms of our in terms of disease states around HIV, and really being a partner in community. I say we are Gilead’s ambassadors in the communities where we have our community liaisons. Currently they’re actively 26, but by the time this article publishes, there will be a total of actually 35 community liaisons across this country.
We’re doing their expansion as a reflection of Gilead’s increased investment and value in recognizing how important it is that we have strong partners on the ground. We do our work in the training and education of partners and with those organizations, but also just as important is the work that we’re doing. We’re going to be increasing our efforts around HIV treatment, and really making sure that we’re working to help keep patients in care which is so critical.
Where are the liaisons located, in any particular geography or in urban or rural areas?
It’s a bit of a mix. They definitely are centered in in urban centers, if you will. But we’ve increased our footprint in the South and in the Southeast which reflects what we know about the epidemic today – half of all new HIV infections are happening in the South. And also understanding the many barriers that exist in the South around healthcare access and around stigma. We felt that it was really important that we make our contribution to really change that by having boots on the ground as community liaisons to do that work.
Can you give me an example of some of the programs they’re working on? Are those national efforts or completely localized efforts?
A couple of things will be focal areas for this coming year. The first is in treatment protocols, and what we call protocol implementation work. At the end of the day, we’re working with customers across the board to help ensure that they have protocols in place in their organization, so that every time someone comes in for HIV testing, and they’re diagnosed as HIV positive, they walk out the door with HIV therapy. That’s something we’re working on every day and is really important.
This is not something unique that we’ve developed — we’re sharing best practices that have been proven. It’s something the CDC rolled out some time ago about the importance of routinizing HIV testing regarding guidelines around treatment around the importance of early therapy and therapy at diagnosis. So that’s something that we are pulling forward, those proven public health strategies. And really in places where HIV is impacting, really making sure that they’re pulling those efforts through. And really being a technical assistance provider in many ways to really help them on the ground. It’s something that’s important and really matters to communities across this country, especially in places where the health care systems and health care access are not as strong as another places – and potentially where there is more stigma.
One of the efforts that we have related to stigma is we offer an entire curriculum around cultural humility in healthcare. Really working with organizations and taking them on a journey to understand the importance of cultural humility in healthcare and getting providers – everyone in the office – to have a mindset of culture humility, and a patient-centric approach to really understanding how important it is that they do the work themselves to make sure that they’re not visiting bias on patients that can result in patients actually getting out of care.
When we look at some of our greatest opportunities, and look at from a community perspective, some of the greatest needs are in communities that are oftentimes marginalized. Communities of color, LGBT communities, etc.
Another big component of our work is that we believe by doing this work, it results in patients being in care and remaining in care, and that their HIV is being appropriately managed.
What are some of the marketing efforts and messages that you’re getting out to people?
I think one of the things that we’re really clear on is that we are partners. Gilead is an ally and we are a partner in this work, where we provide leadership. It’s really important that everyone understand that. And also that we understand that patients’ needs are at the core of our work, and we have to make sure that we are patient-centric in our approaches to healthcare, and our approaches to marketing and education. We have to make sure we have materials, we have information and we have efforts that reach people where they are at. Communicating with them in a way in which they can understand and is transformative for them. We work hard every day really to ensure that our work is impactful, not only for science, but also for society.
You’ve mentioned patient-centricity a couple of times, why is that so important in this therapy area?
Because if you’re not patient-centric, that means your messages won’t reach the patients and you will miss the very individuals that you need to reach. When you look at it from a health disparity lens, there are many marginalized communities that need the messages and what we have to offer at Gilead in terms of HIV prevention or treatment. If we don’t make sure that our messages are reaching those patients, we then run the risk of missing them.
Going from one or just a few treatments and medicines to now a portfolio, how has that changed and where is Gilead today?
Gilead has always been a leader and innovator in the field of HIV – driving advances in treatment, driving advances in prevention and driving advances in cure research. And so that’s who we are.
Today we actually are more targeted, and we are increasing our footprint in places and in areas where the message needs to resonate and have greater impact. We have increased investments in our marketing efforts to really ensure that they’re in places where we know HIV exists. That’s something that we have, over time, really become very intentional about.
Also the utilization of social media, for example, and just making sure that we are innovating with the times. The reality is that a decade ago, pretty much we all just watched television. Now a decade later, media is so much beyond television. We’ve adapted our messages and our engagement to reflect that.
Does that mean we’re going to see you in a TikTok soon? Seriously though, your target audience is younger than, say, a cardiovascular drug?
(Laughs) I won’t take that off the table because you do see us on Instagram, we are on Facebook, so …
We do make sure that our efforts are keeping up with the young people, especially the age group that is 18 to 29. Some of the most vulnerable communities and populations for HIV are in that age bracket and so we definitely have to adapt.
Our message is really critical, and I mean both our messages related to our medication, but also our messages related to providing education and awareness around HIV because we know medication alone will not end the HIV epidemic. There’s so much more that we have to address to really ensure that we are ending the epidemic. Our messages will adapt to make sure that we’re doing our part and providing leadership, but also that we’re reaching the people that need to be reached.
Why is it important to have the local community presence in HIV?
We have really have increased our efforts and our engagement where HIV is located to make sure that we’re educating our healthcare providers, that we’re educating communities on HIV impact, how people can be prevented from acquiring HIV, and how people can be treated for HIV. We’ve dialed up those efforts and optimize those for impact on those that need to hear those messages the most.
We’ve been working in this field over 30 years. And so we have incredible trust amongst our community partners and they see us as such, and that we’re doing our part to make sure that we end the epidemic.
And you’re not at Gilead headquarters in California, right?
I’m actually in Atlanta, Georgia.
I did read that when I looked you up on the internet. And I also saw that you were named as one of the coolest Black families in Atlanta a few years ago.
Let me tell you, I will never be able to live that article down. When you Google me, that’s one of the first things that comes up. (Laughs) It was a real honor to be recognized by Ebony in that fashion. And one of the first black male, same gender loving couples to receive that designation. But you know, it’s about the work in Atlanta and the work in Georgia which is really critical. One of the things that I do every day, and every opportunity really, is to make sure that our leadership as a company is actually here in Georgia, because when you look at what’s happening in HIV, Atlanta is one of the few markets where over time, HIV continues to increase when you look at year over year, whereas in most other big urban centers, you are seeing a decrease in HIV infections. Me being here is really a reflection of, I would say, Gilead’s commitment to being where the epidemic is and having leadership where the epidemic is to make a difference.
You mention case numbers, how has COVID impacted HIV?
We’ve seen it very directly that for the first time in over 40 years, there have been months where more people were dropping out of care than going into care. I think for all of us who work in HIV, it’s been really concerning and that’s just one of a number of effects from Covid. People have fallen out of care, people have moved to other places and didn’t have a job and then didn’t have the strength, the urgency, or the ability to actually sign up for health care – or it became less of a priority.
We notice what happens in HIV care with other priorities such as housing, such as transportation, or even eating can take precedence over HIV care. It’s been something that we’ve seen and Covid has exacerbated it and also exacerbated some of the disparities we’ve known have always existed.
It’s something that is top of mind. And in some ways why the decision was made to increase our efforts with our community liaison team to ensure that we’re working with partners – with community-based organizations, community health centers and health departments – to really explore strategies to welcome people back to care.
Is it disappointing in that there was so much progress being made in HIV and now this setback by Covid?
For me, it underscores the urgency. It underscores why it’s so important to do the work that we do, why it’s important that we do it with greater intensity and that we don’t give up and we don’t get distracted. Not that there aren’t things that are important that are happening around us. But we really have to make sure we maintain our laser focus around HIV because HIV continues. It’s still happening, it did not go away because of Covid and so that’s always top of mind for me. So I wouldn’t frame it as disappointing – for me, it fuels my fire.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I would just say, in closing that, you know, we’ve all been impacted by Covid, and pretty much in every way. But what is true is HIV did not end and HIV did not stop because of Covid. We are really committed to our work in ending the epidemic and making sure that everyone who needs therapy has it. And we have boots on the ground to do that, working with partners across this country to ensure access to care.