People Making an Impact: Kiah Williams
Kiah Williams has been recognized as a Forbes 30-Under-30 Social Entrepreneur, one of America’s 50 Most Influential Women by Marie Claire, and in Silicon Valley Business Journal’s 40-Under-40. How did a woman from West Philadelphia who “grew up one generation out of poverty,” earn her way onto such prestigious lists?
Williams earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University where she was passionate about health equity in underserved communities and also served as the president of the NAACP. After Stanford, she helped create the Alliance Healthcare Initiative, a public-private partnership spearheaded by the American Heart Association and Clinton Foundation that engaged Fortune 500 companies to expand healthcare benefits for 2 million children.
Her aforementioned accolades, however, come from her work with SIRUM which Williams co-founded with Adam Kircher and George Wang, PhD in 2009. SIRUM (Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine) was founded as a non-profit social enterprise created to decrease the amount of medicine going to waste in the U.S. by redistributing unused, unexpired drugs to clinics serving those in need. Using an innovative technology platform, SIRUM saves lives, time, and money by allowing health facilities, manufacturers, wholesalers, and pharmacies to easily donate unused medicine rather than destroy it.
In 2015, SIRUM won first prize in the Forbes $1 Million Change the World Competition at the Forbes Under 30 Summit. The following year, SIRUM was awarded the grand prize for the Women Who Tech Startup Challenge. Today, as they continue to do amazing work around the country, SIRUM is also the giveback partner for Betr Remedies.
Betr Remedies Co-Founder and President, Jen Hoffman, recently got the chance to sit down with Kiah WIlliams for an interview* via Zoom, work-from-home style, to put a spotlight on medication access in the U.S., why it’s an issue more serious than people realize, and how we can all do our part to make it better.
*Note: the transcription of this interview has been edited for flow and conciseness and was approved by both parties involved.
Jen: Welcome Kiah. So, my first question is, why is medication access important to you personally?
Kiah: Medication access is important. Healthcare is a fundamental right. Personally, I have been in the healthcare industry for my entire career. I was originally supposed to be the first doctor in my family. As I explored different parts of healthcare, worked with patients, worked with families, I recognized that so much of what people need and so much of health happens, begins, in the doctor’s office with someone writing you a prescription for a medication that you need. But what’s really important is what happens after that. Too often I would see folks who weren’t getting better and weren’t able to manage conditions that were completely treatable all because they couldn’t afford the medications that they needed. So, medication access is important because it really is, and healthcare is, the foundation on which everything else can build from. It’s how we can get gainful employment; you can’t get a job if you're not healthy enough to work, you can’t go to school, you can’t live your life with your family. It’s such a core pillar of society that I felt very compelled to essentially make medication access and healthcare access the thing I wanted to do with my time.
Jen: For the people that don’t have visibility to this issue, what would you specifically say to them as to why they should care if it doesn’t impact their day to day lives?
Kiah: Okay, so let’s break this down. So, as you said, 1 in 4 adults report skipping medications due to cost and that can be approaching 50 million people. So, this is not a niche issue and studies have shown that when people don’t get the medications, they need it actually costs our healthcare system up to $300 billion a year. That includes preventable emergency room visits and, hospitalizations. So, this is really all of our issues a society, as a country, when we look at: how are we spending the time and the resources that we have, from our healthcare workers to dollars in our national budget. So, this is really not a niche issue, this is an American issue of access to care. And I think what’s super fascinating about prescription drug access and medication access in particularis all of this downstream impact of cost and real human livess. You know, when people don’t take medications that they need, over 100,000 people die every year, and that’s actually more, to contextualize that’s more people that die from not taking the medication that they need than car accidents and opioid overdoses combined. So, I think that a lot of people may be very unaware that someone may be walking up to a pharmacy counter and stepping away without a medication they need for a heart condition or to prevent a stroke and I don’t think that they necessarily realize the cascade of negative things that can happen from hospitalizations, emergency rooms, to death. I think it seems like such a simple thing and maybe it’s not something that everyone has experienced but I think that all of us can imagine walking up to a counter, having been told by their healthcare provider “Hey, this is a treatment that you need. This is a medication that you need” and how hard of a decision that would be to weigh paying rent, buying food for your family, or buying this medication that ultimately will help you live a better life. So, I think that this is why this is important, but I also think to contextualize this for everyone; this is not an individual issue. This is in fact a fundamental and societal issue that all of us should be thinking about because it impacts every part of this country.
Jen: In your work, how have you been successful in getting people to talk more about this?
Kiah: I think costs are hard and I think it is hard for folks to say, you know, “I can't afford this medication” but maybe a better question for us to ask in some of these instances is “why is this medication so expensive?” So, I want to flip this on its head a little bit because I think we put a lot of personal responsibility and accountability on individuals to take care of themselves in eating well and exercising and getting enough sleep. And in today’s world I think we all can admit that that is a hard thing for any of us to consistently do, to do everything right. I think that the reason this becomes a challenge for folks to talk about is because it’s so complicated, to your point, healthcare is complicated. Whether you're insured or uninsured, whether you have a high deductible plan or not, whether you have a PPO or managed care plan, high deductibles, there’s so many words. There’s so many parts and pieces that make it difficult for people to truly understand. What am I supposed to be doing? Where do I go? And how much does it cost and how much does it cost for me as an end consumer? And I think even how much does a medication cost? How much does a procedure cost? It’s very complicated and it’s too hard for people to understand all of the parts and pieces that go into it and so if you can’t even understand the parts and pieces, how are you going to understand how much money to save? How can we make people accountable for their own care and their own health and empower them to do so if literally you walk up to the pharmacy counter and get told one price and I walk up to [another] counter for the same medication and get told a different price? So, I think inherently there’s just a lot of systemic issues that we need to address around affordability that makes it really difficult for people to engage in this issue. And I think that real practically, one of the things we’ve seen be more successful is working with programs and with providers and with systems where they’re really trying to deconstruct and make more transparency around costs. That’s one of the things at SIRUM we are really passionate about. How do we get to a point where healthcare has a lot of known cost and transparent pricing so that consumers, i.e. families can really understand and plan for “hey this medication is going to be $10 a month” or “you know this doctor office visit is going to be x dollars for this visit.” We have to get more transparency into the process so that people can actually begin planning and taking control and empowering them to actually take control of their own health.
Jen: I’d love to focus a little bit on the positive aspect that we both do but more specifically that SIRUM does. SIRUM is a nonprofit organization that you founded that does amazing work to make a lot of people’s lives better. I’d love for you to share how you personally able to help people get access to medication
Kiah: Yeah, so thank you so much for that kind introduction. I could really spend a lot of time talking about transparency and access and healthcare and all of the things we should be doing but one thing we are trying is to drive change via SIRUM. We are a nonprofit technology organization, and we are trying to connect $11 billion of unused medications. These are unused, unexpired, perfectly good medications that go to waste in our healthcare system right now and instead use technology to get those medications where they are needed the most; to communities, families, to individual patients that can’t afford their medication otherwise, to those that are having issues with high cost of medication. So, we do this by connecting predominantly institutions; we're talking about pharmacies, manufacturers, healthcare institutions like nursing homes that have surplus medication and helping them put a recycling bin and recycling program into their facility. If we can recycle a can or compost food, then surely, we can figure out a way to donate a $100 life-saving medication. So that’s what we’re on a mission to do, to make sure that all of the unused medications that are perfectly good go to their intended purpose which is to help someone live a better life.
Jen: That’s great. The Betr team, and myself included, we are extremely happy to have a partner like SIRUM. So, every purchase, every product a consumer buys, we offer SIRUM a donation that allows for one prescription medication to be donated which I believe equals roughly a $45 savings for those patients that can’t afford it.
Kiah: We are extremely thrilled and I co-founded SIRUM with 2 incredible co-founders, Adam Kircher and Dr George Wang, and we are thrilled to partner with organizations like Betr who have this mission and this real passion to make sure everyone has access to live this great life and the life we deserve in order to have all of our wishes and dreams come true. We are super excited to work with an organization like Betr who believes in access and believes in healthcare as a fundamental right.
Jen: One last question I have for those listening in or reading through, what can we do to help? What can others do to help?
Kiah: I think there is a role for everyone in how do we make our healthcare system work for us. I think at an individual level, just being aware of cost. Asking about cost, asking about pricing, whether it’s a medication or a procedure. I think that we can all just be better consumers of healthcare and think about healthcare as a necessary service and part of our lives in a way that we are a little more evaluative, and everyone should feel empowered as a patient, as a consumer, as a user of our healthcare system to ask questions and to demystify and destigmatize the idea of people are making real world tradeoffs between groceries and medication they need. So, it is ok to step up and really ask those tough questions of our system around “hey, is this something that is affordable?” or “hey, is this high cost?” I think that’s everyone empowering and feel empowered and an active participant in their own care. And I think there are other things folks can do if they know healthcare facilities, be it a pharmacy, be it a nursing home, manufacturers, wholesaler, asking these institutions “hey, are you donating your unused mediation” or anything they have that is still perfectly good, “what are you doing with those?” I think it’s everyone looking at the recycling movement where we all started putting cans, plastics and glass in the bins and trying to be better stewards of this environment. I think we can all do the same in our active daily lives on how we’re handling our precious resources. Medications are super expensive to make and very resource intensive. How do we make sure every pill goes to a person who needs it?
Jen: That’s great, thanks Kiah, I appreciate your time; this has been a wonderful conversation and we'll will continue to do our good work, along with your help, and make a difference!
To learn more about the work that Kiah and her team is doing and ways to help, visit SIRUM.org.
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