Welcome to the Woman of the Week podcast, a weekly discussion that illuminates the unique stories of women leaders who are catalyzing change throughout the life sciences industry. You can check out all our podcast episodes here.
As an OB-GYN, Dr. Yesmean Wahdan had devoted her career to women’s health. But she also realized that if she left clinical service, she could have a greater impact on innovation and address unmet medical needs for women around the world.
“End to end, we all need to be a part of this if we are to bring solutions to the table that are in the service of women and in service of ensuring that they are able to live their lives to the healthiest and fullest potential,” Wahdan said.
Now, as Bayer’s vice president of U.S. medical affairs and women’s health, Wahden is focused on making sure the company meets its pledge to provide 100 million women in low- and middle-income countries access to modern contraception and education by 2030.
“The 100 Million Women Program’s goal is to provide access to family planning and by virtue of that funding multi-stakeholder aid programs,” she said. “We are helping ensure the supply of affordable modern contraceptives is there for all who wish to take advantage. This is unfolding primarily through the recognition that we are all in this together — we are all part of an ecosystem that can support the lives of so many. And when we do that, we help ourselves, we help those we are here to serve, and we help humanity go so much further.”
Wahdan is building on the pharma’s long-standing legacy in the therapeutic area and fostering an environment that supports and invests in the health of women. In the wake of emerging threats to women’s reproductive rights, she’s making sure the company’s efforts in access are holistic.
“We believe truly that all women should have access to safe and effective healthcare options, including contraceptive options,” Wahdan said. “And for us, access is so much more than making options available in the clinics and putting a product on the shelf. Access is about creating awareness, educating on those options and then offering equal opportunity for all to choose those options and to consider those options.”
She also believes women’s health is more than just patients “walking in to see their clinicians.”
“When you care for a woman, you are caring for their families, for their communities and ultimately the world,” she said. “The challenge is continuing to push and fight for access for all women no matter who they are or what their background or status is.”
In this week’s episode, Wahdan shares why it’s about “damn time” for women’s health, what it takes to innovate in the space and how Bayer is working toward achieving its goal to meet the needs of more than 100 million women around the world.
Welcome to WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast by PharmaVoice powered by Industry Dive.
In this episode of the Woman of the Week podcast, Taren Grom, editor-in-chief emeritus at PharmaVoice, meets with Dr. Yesmean Wahdan, vice president of U.S. medical affairs and women’s healthcare at Bayer.
Taren: Welcome to the WoW podcast program.
Yesmean: Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you today.
Taren: Well, it’s a pleasure to get to meet you as well. Dr. Wahdan, you have been with Bayer for more than eight years; what is it about the company that has kept you for almost a decade?
Yesmean: Well, I have to say, it’s a tremendous privilege to be with Bayer and to have been here for almost a decade. If I sort of introspect and think truly about the question that you’re posing, I would say honestly it is the genuine and passionate dedication into the care of people and their families, that I can tell you I see on a daily basis for my colleagues here at Bayer. Bayer was established about 160 years ago and it continues to this day to support the lives of everyone whether it be the food we eat, the medicines at our medicine cabinet on a daily basis, and the treatments we receive from clinicians to support healthy lives.
Bayer’s mission is health for all and hunger for none and I can tell you quite genuinely that I see that, and it’s truly woven into the fabric of who we are as an organization and the culture that we live by each day to support the work we do. And at the end of the day, those we serve and those that we serve are those that we are here to support living healthier lives and living without hunger.
Taren: It’s such a legacy pharmaceutical company. There are very few that are left such as yours with that kind of longevity and that kind of history, so I would think that really does provide such a foundation for folks within the organization.
Yesmean: It sure does. You think about Bayer, and oftentimes when I talk to family members and I tell them that I work for Bayer, they think about Bayer aspirin from a pharma perspective and a clinical perspective. But Bayer is such a broad organization … and the food that we eat, all the way to the medicines that we get over the counter to again the medicines that we get in interacting with our clinicians and our physicians. So, to your point, it’s a strong legacy that is really a broad legacy and touches so many lives in so many different ways.
Taren: Wonderful. Let’s talk a little bit about your role as VP of US Medical Affairs for Women’s Healthcare. What does this entail? What is your overall remit for the organization?
Yesmean: So, Taren, I’m an ob-gyn by background so it is very much an area of healthcare that I’m passionate about by background and by training. In my current role, what we really look to do on a day-to-day basis is foster an environment where we support and invest in the health of women throughout their life’s journey, right? So we want to ensure that through all that we do, we are able to support women and serve them in as broader capacity as we can through the healthcare options that we can bring forward. We believe truly that women should have access to all safe and effective healthcare options including contraceptive options. And, for us, access is so much more than making options available in the clinics and sort of putting a product on the shelf, right? Access is about creating awareness, educating on those options, and then offering equal opportunity for all to choose those options and to consider those options.
I can’t underscore enough the importance on the role of education and access again to all healthcare options including contraception and contraceptive options for women because that is at the core of our work. And I am so proud to work with the folks that we have on our team and support this effort around the reproductive health of all women. We have been committed to women’s healthcare for decades and continue to actively work with local and national partners as well as advocacy groups and government agencies to support advances in the health of women including the reproductive health of women.
Taren: I was going to say since we’re on that topic of reproductive health, the current climate in the US around contraception and reproductive health, let’s face it, is a little bit shaky. So let’s talk about what companies like yours are doing to counter disinformation and to make sure, as you said, that women who want access to contraception can have access to contraception.
Yesmean: As I mentioned, from our perspective, you really have to look at it from the perspective of access and understanding what goes into access and the fact that that includes understanding that access is more than just making that option available. As I mentioned, it’s about creating awareness, providing education, and seeking partnerships, really strong partnerships that are beyond the transactional to really create equal opportunity for all to choose any option that’s right for them depending on their life’s journey as I mentioned above, and at whatever point in that life’s journey her plans change or her family’s plans change. That’s really at the core of what we do is to sort of communicate information, make sure that there’s a solid understanding of that information at all levels and with all partners within the healthcare ecosystem, whether it be payers, again as I said government partners, other partners within the private sector creating a really strong foundation to support and serve those in seeking their healthcare.
Taren: In terms of access, what are some of the biggest barriers that you’re seeing right now and how can they be overcome?
Yesmean: The biggest barriers are ensuring that when care is sought by anyone within the healthcare system, they have equal access and equal opportunity to that care and making sure that whether it’s before they even get to the clinician’s office or whether they are in the clinician’s office that they have access to the right information to help make that powerful and informed decision. When you know your options, you can make an informed choice on when or even if ever you want to start a family or taking control of your reproductive health can enable women to really make other choices about their life in a more powerful way. Women’s health decision should be their own including when it comes to contraception. The majority of women, if you think about it, have used at least one form of contraception at some point in their lives and it’s critical that women continue to have a voice and choice in their options. And, as you said, it’s critically important now more than ever that we work to educate and dispel misinformation that may trigger restrictions on birth control options including long-acting options like implants or IUDs, even short-acting options like the birth control pill, over the counter options – rings, condoms, et cetera. So really sort of addressing some of the misinformation head on and making sure that clear and accurate information is available in order to help folks make informed and powerful decisions.
Taren: Fantastic. And again, as part of Bayer’s initiative which has a long legacy with women’s health, and the company is publicly committed to providing access to contraception to 100 million women – let’s repeat that number again, 100 million women in low to middle income countries by 2030. That’s an ambitious goal. How is that strategy unfolding right now?
Yesmean: As you said, it’s quite an ambitious but a goal that we are all so incredibly proud of. And it is a goal to provide, as you said, a hundred million women in low and middle income countries with access to family planning and that is by virtue and by way of funding multi-stakeholder aid programs. And by helping ensure that the supply of affordable modern contraceptives is there for all who wish to take advantage of that. This is unfolding primarily through the recognition that we are all in this together, honestly, Taren, and that we are all part of an ecosystem that can support the lives of so many, right?
Partnership is so key and it’s so critical, understanding that we are a part of an ecosystem and we all have a part to play in this. And when we do that, we help ourselves, we help those we are here to serve, and we help humanity go so much farther is I think one element that cannot be underscored or are highlighted enough, and partnering with amazing partners like, for example, Direct Relief, an organization that serves 2,000 safety net clinics in the United States and caring for over 2 million uninsured and underserved individuals is just one example; but that is I think primarily how we are intending to meet this goal.
Taren: Fantastic. And let me ask you this question, it’s such a laudable goal; do you have a similar program in place for maybe low to middle income women in the United States who maybe don’t have access to healthcare and things like that? Do you have a similar program running here in the United States?
Yesmean: So this 100 Million Women Program, Taren, is a global program. It involves many of the efforts that we have undertaken here in the US, similar to the one I shared just now with Direct Relief. This all rolls up into that goal.
Taren: Okay, fantastic. I just wanted to clarify that. So you’ve entered into your new role just over the course of two years ago. In that time, what has surprised you, delighted you, challenged you? How have you made the role your own?
Yesmean: I would say that what has surprised and delighted me most is just continued fulfillment and passion that myself and many of my partners on the Bayer Women’s Healthcare team have for what we do. There is a real belief and understanding that working in this space affects matters that are beyond the individual folks that are walking in to see their clinicians. And it matters a whole lot to a whole lot of people frankly because we really truly believe that when you care for a woman, you are caring for their families, for their communities, and ultimately the world. I would say the challenge is continuing to push and fight for access for all women no matter who they are, what their background or status is. Most recently, the challenge has been seeing just how much of a decline there has been in women’s healthcare visits overall. So I can tell you that looking at some of the most recent data, there’s been an overall approximately 41% decline in women’s healthcare visits in the United States.
So for me, and for those that I work with, what that translates into is a 41% decline in the opportunity for women to seek care that keeps them living their lives to the healthiest and fullest potential. And when I talk about women’s healthcare, I’m talking about preventative care. Preventative care such as breast and cervical cancer screening, mental health and support screening, and reproductive health counseling and education. So seeing that, again, is quite striking and that I think only inspires us to continue what we’re doing in terms of educating and ensuring that we partner with the right entities, the right partners to make sure that we can impact this.
Taren: And do we think that decline is due to the pandemic? Because women weren’t going in to see their doctors, they have juggling job, kids, elderly parents, life in general, and they just took themselves out of the equation because oftentimes that’s what women do.
Yesmean: Yes, indeed. That’s exactly what we’re seeing and I can tell you that that’s a question we’ve looked at to try to better understand this because this is, again, as I said, an alarming bit of data and information that we’re seeing. And what I can share with you is that this decline actually started to happen pre-pandemic, Taren. But I think the pandemic just exacerbated it that much more and it is what we are seeing now and that is nearly 41% decline in women seeking care for themselves and preventative care at that rate.
Taren: Yet at the same time we’re seeing like across the industry, and I don’t think I’m alone in noticing this, that women’s health is having its moment. We’re seeing companies such as yours, in Organon, and others really putting forward women’s health issues in a way it hasn’t been done before. Why do you think this is now the moment for women’s health?
Yesmean: I don’t know what Courtney will say to me for saying this, but I would say it’s about damn time, right? It’s about damn time, and I say that because of this – I think there’s a real realization by many that conditions that women have long dealt with and just sort of put up with are truly areas of unmet medical need and they deserve investment, they deserve research, it deserves innovation because quality of life matters and quality of life impacts more than just the individual women physically. It impacts their entire lives, their families, and their life’s journey and that matters.
And, Taren, you just said it, you said women oftentimes will sort of push their own needs aside for the sake of caring for their families, their extended families, et cetera, but what we forget is that if those individuals are not healthy, they can’t be there to do those things and that’s not to say that’s their only sort of motivation in life, but we can’t expect them to do those things and not take some time to focus on their own health and be there as organizations to research for their sake, to innovate for their sake, to ensure that they themselves can live their lives to the fullest potential.
Taren: I’m glad you brought up the piece about innovation because really a piece of this has to go back to how drugs are designed, how products are designed for women. And, unfortunately, over the past decades, women have been woefully underrepresented in clinical trials. So how does this start to change too?
Yesmean: So I think in terms of innovation when you have products that are dedicated around again the areas of unmet need specifically for women, that sort of puts it in an entirely new light when it comes to development, right? If this is a condition, for example such as endometriosis or fibroids or menopause which I can share with you that Bayer has a medication that’s now a non-hormonal medication for the treatment of vasomotor symptoms and menopause symptoms that’s in phase 3. When you have products that are dedicated to the space, that sort of changes the dynamic in the paradigm when you’re looking at development. You’re not just sort of developing data on a particular product and then sort of carte blanche applying the output to the female population. These are medications, these are innovations that are dedicated to the space of women’s healthcare.
Taren: So let’s talk about the pipeline that you just referenced. So what’s coming down the pipe for you all in terms of women’s healthcare? You talked about the phase 3 product just now; what else should we be looking forward to?
Yesmean: I would say that I will share that for women’s healthcare at Bayer, it is really looking at expanding the women’s healthcare arena for Bayer beyond traditionally what Bayer has been and establish a core expertise and that is reproductive life planning, right? Expanding out to other points and milestones within a woman’s life journey whether it be in other gyn conditions or conditions related to pregnancy, et cetera. That is I can tell you a real discussion that’s happening here internally again with the goal being to support women all throughout their life’s journey. I can also share with you that on the consumer health side which is again part of Bayer, there are already solutions that are in place there that support women across their sort of life spectrum whether it be nutritionals that are meant to support women during menopause or the nutritions that are meant to support women during their pregnancy and their partners during pregnancy. So it’s again continuing to build that legacy within our organization where we are supporting women throughout their journey.
Taren: Fantastic. When you are speaking with other women’s health leaders, what are some of the top concerns they have or you have as you look ahead to 2023 and 2024? Oftentimes I hear it goes back to that access piece, that insurance piece. We’re getting like a product, even if it’s a contraceptive covered under insurance, do you all have some shared concerns?
Yesmean: Definitely access from that perspective is always a concern because if women aren’t able to get coverage, that significantly decreases their opportunity to leverage that as an option to improve their lives. So that’s definitely an element that we look to partner with our payer partners and market access partners to address. But I would say dedication to working in an ecosystem that involves many, many partners in order to drive successful development of treatments and therapies in the women’s healthcare. And it goes from the payers that you touched on, Taren, to regulators, industry partners, healthcare delivery networks. We have to sort of really embrace this idea that we’re all in this together, all part of an ecosystem, and that we all need to prioritize and focus together to again drive success for the advancement of women’s health, for the betterment of the women’s healthcare landscape, and in service of these individuals who, again, going back to sort of what we believe as an organization, if you care for this group of individuals, you are caring for so many more people.
Taren: Well, that’s right. It is absolutely a trickle down effect. I have to put on my cynical hat for a moment because on TV we often see DTC commercials that are directed to men’s health products. We rarely see them for women’s products and there’s just a difference in terms of focus. So I’m glad to hear that you all are doing so much and it’s also encouraging to hear that you’re speaking to other women’s healthcare leaders and how to move the needle in terms of women’s health to the whole continuum, not just contraceptive but other women’s health issues. So that’s great news.
Yesmean: For sure. I’ll share with you some of the things that I say around our meeting spaces, Taren. I sum it up with one quote I often share “Teamwork makes the dream work.” If we want to go fast, we can go alone; but if we want to go farther and really make a big impact, we got to do it together.
Taren: Absolutely. You referenced earlier that you are an ob-gyn and that certainly gives you a different lens into how you view women’s health and the impact that I’m sure your role has at Bayer. Why join the pharmaceutical industry? Why not be a practicing ob-gyn?
Yesmean: I realized very early on when I joined the industry, again this idea of an ecosystem. End to end, we all need to be a part of this if we are to bring solutions to the table that are in the service of women and in service of ensuring that they are able to live their lives to the healthiest and fullest potential. And it was one of the biggest privileges of my life to serve as a clinician and work one-on-one with individuals and sort of walk directly with them through some of the decisions in their life that they needed to make and be there for those moments in their lives. Coming over to this side has helped me realize that there need to be more individuals on this side from a clinical perspective who can share that experience and work to impact the innovation and push to make change in terms of addressing unmet medical needs for women’s health from this aspect. And by virtue of doing that, then impact a broader sort of catchment of individuals. Making an impact in that way is how I see the work that’s being done here and what brings me fulfillment similar to the fulfillment I experience working one-on-one with individuals.
Taren: That’s wonderful. Well, thank you for doing what you’re doing for the industry on behalf of women. Can you talk a little bit about your childhood and what initially sparked your interest in science and healthcare? What started this journey for you?
Yesmean: I can’t say, Taren, that I ever woke up one day and said to myself, “I want to be in healthcare.” It’s kind of funny to say, but I’ve always known and felt that that was my calling, if you will, as funny as it is to say that. I’ve always known that I wanted to care for others and be helpful to people. I could say that I can, on the flipside, share with you when I definitely knew that I wanted to care and be in the service of other women.
So I am the oldest of six, Taren, and there’s actually a 15-year gap between myself and the youngest in our family. Although I wasn’t all too thrilled when my parents let me know that they were expecting this sibling of mine, I eventually came around to it and I started visiting the ob-gyn with my mom and learning a little bit more about how this individual was supporting my mother throughout this journey of hers through her sixth pregnancy and bringing my sibling into the world. And I remember distinctly thinking to myself at one of these visits, this person is taking care of my mom so that my mom can take care of us and that my mom can have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy delivery, and that my sibling at the end of the day can be healthy. Hearing her check in with my mom during these visits about not only her current pregnancy but how she was feeling emotionally helped me realize the importance of women’s healthcare clinicians and physicians. They are so critical throughout, again, a woman’s journey. And when I experienced that, for me, that’s when the light bulb went off and I said, “This is what I want to do.” I want to work in this space because I know that when I work in this space, I am helping not only the person sitting in front of me, the person she’s carrying if she happens to be pregnant, but also the entire family and community that’s then an extension of her.
Taren: That’s a lovely story, thank you so much. So during family times, do you credit your youngest sibling for you going on to medical school? Do they get the nod?
Yesmean: Of course not. I’m just kidding. I always give her a hard time, but she knows that she is the credit to me going into women’s healthcare.
Taren: I have to ask, so six kids?
Taren: Boys and girls or all girls?
Yesmean: It’s an even split, three boys and three girls.
Taren: God bless your mother.
Yesmean: Yes. God bless her indeed.
Taren: Thank you for giving us a little bit of insight into that. That’s a wonderful story. It’s a remarkable thing when you hit that inflection point and you say “aha”, right? It’s like the light bulb goes off for you.
Yesmean: Exactly, yes.
Taren: And it’s wonderful. As we come out of this pandemic and as it becomes more endemic, leaders across the industry are struggling how to go forward. Do folks come back to the office full-time? Can we support a hybrid work environment? And we’re seeing so many studies come out about this is really impacting women in far greater numbers than men, these decisions. How are you managing this conundrum?
Yesmean: I can share that, number one, not just saying this because I work for Bayer but, honestly, having experienced the pandemic as an employee, just hearing about experiences that others have had within and on the industry but outside of industry. I feel honestly blessed by the opportunity to work for this organization because of the fact that there was early recognition and adoption that folks needed some space to adapt to the new norm of how we conducted life and work during the pandemic. And I think that Bayer has brought that thinking and that sentiment to the post-pandemic era. Offering this hybrid setting where there is a recognition that face-to-face interaction is quite important especially depending on what your function is within the organization, but then also understanding that there needs to be some flexibility because life is different, right? The world is different.
Taren: Absolutely. I find it interesting just as we women especially figured out how to manage this whole home schooling, home health, home work, home everything, and then got to go back to the office. My way of saying is that the toothpaste is out of the tube, I don’t know how you get it back in. It’s just too hard.
Yesmean: Yeah. And I think at some point, Taren, we have to stop trying to figure out how to put it back in the tube and just figure out how do we use it now that it’s out.
Taren: Exactly. And brush wisely.
Yesmean: Exactly, brush wisely.
Taren: So tell me a little bit about your leadership style. How would you describe yourself as a leader?
Yesmean: As a leader, I’m really, really committed to this idea, and I said it before, that teamwork makes the dream work, right? I really believe that wholeheartedly that it’s not a one-man show no matter who you are or what you’re doing or what your level is, the expertise and the input and the insights of those who are on the team to make the ship run just flawlessly. And so infusing that into how you communicate with team members and ensuring that everyone has a voice around the table and that as a leader you then can take those voices, bring them together, and move things forward with the mindset that we are here to serve. We are here to serve people at the end of the day and what we do matters, and it matters to a whole lot of folks. That’s my take on leadership.
Taren: I love that, “teamwork makes the dream work”, for sure. And, yes, it can’t be a one-person show for sure because nothing would ever get done.
Taren: In your current role, you have now been elevated to, and probably before this, is really a role model to other women. How does this mantle of responsibility feel to you? Does it feel okay?
Yesmean: I oftentimes remind myself of the responsibility that comes with the role because there are two things I always keep in mind. One is the reminder to myself to always carry as you climb. Create opportunity for those who will come after. My dad always said to us when we were growing up “Remember where you came from.” And what that means to me is remembering your journey, remember that there were people that encouraged you along the way, and remember that there were people that opened doors and created opportunity. And so for me, it’s my responsibility to do the same and set an example along the way.
Taren: And, Yesmean, are there people who have opened doors for you? Is there anybody in particular who’s had a significant influence on your career, somebody who maybe took you under their wing or opened a door for you?
Yesmean: I wouldn’t say there was any one particular person, Taren. It’s just sort of a number of people along the way depending on where I was in my journey that were there and supported the goals that I was trying to accomplish at the time with my parents early on, going through school, and making sure that I had the resources and the structure and the support that I needed in place to make it through school and do what I needed to do. And then colleagues and mentors and leaders along the way. And from each one of those folks, personally, for me, what I take away is, number one, what they’ve done to support the journey but, number two, their strengths because every one of those people, whether they realize it or not, was a leader because of their recognition that there was a need to nurture and nourish an environment for someone to grow in and do well in.
Taren: Fantastic. If you had to look back over your career and got an opportunity to wind up the way back machine, is there anything you know now that you would tell your younger self and say, ‘Hey, this is coming down the pike’ or ‘You can do this’?
Yesmean: If I were to meet my younger self, I would say it’s going to be all right. Trust yourself, right? Trust yourself and trust that you have the skills and you have the resources in place. And as long as you trust in that, trust in the journey, it’s going to be all right.
Taren: So that’s what you would’ve told yourself. So now what is some great leadership advice you may have received from some other folks that you are now passing along? Is there any one key piece of advice that you’ve received?
Yesmean: I would say yes. And it’s funny because, as you said, when you think about the light bulb going off, I also think about some of the best leadership advice that I’ve received and you think about those moments that are so vivid. So it was actually from an older OR nurse. She and I were clearing out an OR one day after a procedure and I had stayed back to just help the team sort through things and turn over the operating room so we could bring the next patient in so they didn’t have to wait so long in the holding area. And she said, “Don’t ever change who you are” and that always stuck with me. And it often pops into my head particularly when I’m facing a challenging situation or a challenging discussion. It’s important to me to stay true to my genuine self and to trust my gut and to be kind first no matter what. Not to accept things that I wouldn’t accept in terms of interactions from other folks or situations, but always go with kindness first and oftentimes that gets you further down the road than anything else.
Taren: Absolutely. That’s an example of being a true servant leader – here you are assisting where you didn’t have to assist to make sure that the patient wasn’t waiting. Really that’s a thread I can see just from our brief interaction that has continued out throughout the entire tapestry of your career. And as my mother always used to say, kindness doesn’t cost you anything.
Yesmean: Exactly. Smiles are free, Taren.
Taren: Smiles are free, I love that. I could sit here and talk to you for another hour, but sadly we are coming to the close of our time and I’m hoping that you have another WoW moment aside from sitting in the ob-gyn office with your mom and your yet to be born sibling that either shaped the trajectory or changed the trajectory of your career or has left really a lasting impression on yourself.
Yesmean: I would say really as I mentioned before having the incredible privilege of caring for and being in the service of others, particularly women. The care of women exposed me to humanity. It’s taught me so much about the journey of life and it really has humbled me enough to realize that when you interact with people, you never really know what they’re experiencing or going through, right? So choose kindness and generosity first and remember, as I said before, smiles are free.
Taren: And we’ll leave it at that – smiles are free. Thank you so much for being part of our WoW podcast program. It’s been a delight to get to know you and I look forward to what you have in store for us for the future, for women’s health, as well as Bayer so thank you again.
Yesmean: Thank you so much for your time today.
Thanks for listening to this episode of WoW, the Woman of the Week podcast. For more WoW episodes, visit pharmavoice.com.