A conversation with Jenil Krishnamurthy, Ph.D., Vice President and Head of Global Public Policy for Merck.
The Women in Leadership (WTTL) program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce focuses on showcasing women executives, connecting them to a network of allies who will champion their work, and providing these leaders with professional growth opportunities to drive change in C-Suites, boardrooms, congressional and corner offices in D.C. and throughout across the country.
Each month, Women Taking Lead highlights a woman within the US Chamber membership to highlight how women are currently leading in all areas of the business community. This January, we’re highlighting Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and the importance of women’s healthcare in a conversation with Jenil Krishnamurthy, Ph.D., Vice President and Head of Global Public Policy for Merck. Read more about Jenelle in her words below.
Tell me about your role at Merck and what led you to enter healthcare.
Let me start by thanking you, Alison, and the Chamber of Commerce for publishing “In Her Own Words” every month. It is a great opportunity for women and men to hear about the exciting female leaders and the careers women have in and out of government.
I’m Vice President and Head of Global Public Policy at Merck. In this role, I have a significant responsibility to create policy solutions that will help Merck fulfill its mission of using cutting-edge science to save and improve lives around the world.
The potential to reduce the impact of human disease has kept me focused on global and domestic health policy in my 20-plus-year career in academia, government, and the private sector, including in roles as Director of Health Policy Staff for the U.S. Senate, the Committee on Education, Labor, and Pensions and in the Office of Public Affairs. South Asia in the US State Department covers health care, science and technology issues. My work is based on my clinical training as a clinical child psychiatrist. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Brown School of Medicine and completing research supported by the National Institutes of Health, I knew I wanted to go further—helping as many people as possible stay healthy and healthy through broad policy interventions.
In all of these positions, I’m fortunate to have worked with some incredible leaders – many of whom are women – and know how important it is to have strong female role models in positions across the public and private sectors.
said the National Cancer Institute More than 14,000 women in the United States Get a cervical cancer diagnosis annually. Can you tell me about Merck and the work the company does in preventing, screening and treating cervical cancer in the United States?
No one should face this kind of news. As I noted earlier, Merck is at the forefront of cancer research, investing billions of dollars in an effort to bring new therapies to patients who need them.
Before the pandemic, we saw increased rates of cancer screening and a decrease in the incidence of cancer. While we still have reason for optimism, we know that the pandemic has taken its toll on cancer prevention through decreased screening rates and early detection efforts, and reduced treatment. This means that individuals and families suffer. This also means that companies may be challenged to fulfill their mission. What happens if an employee gets sick or a local high street shopkeeper receives a cancer diagnosis? This is why we are so focused on continuing our research efforts and working alongside trusted voices in the communities to raise awareness and increase cancer prevention efforts, including screening.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said Cervical cancer is the fourth most common Cancer of women globally, and the World Health Assembly has developed a strategy to eliminate cervical cancer as a global health problem. What is Merck doing to support the de-WHO agenda?
The challenges we face in the United States when it comes to preventing and addressing the burden of cancer do not happen in a silo. Which is why Merck was pleased when WHO launched the Global Strategy to End Cervical Cancer at the 2020 World Health Assembly. This was a wake-up call to the world – to governments, businesses, healthcare leaders and providers – that we need all hands on deck in support of WHO’s goal The global health goal of eliminating cervical cancer once and for all. Merck is pleased to be a part of these initiatives that align with Merck’s mission.
How would you advise others to get started with health care policy — are there particular resources, perhaps even those specifically related to women’s health that you’ve found useful?
Many individuals’ interest in health care policy sparks when they see how much impact they can have by writing policies that affect an entire segment of the population. There are undergraduate, graduate, and degree courses in healthcare policy that individuals can pursue. After formal training, obtaining an associate or a job where you can apply what you learned in school to federal or state policy can be helpful in understanding not only how new policy is developed but also how the policy and process of the system might affect if the policy is passed and implemented from any time ago. Working with various health groups, trade associations, patient groups, academics, and the private sector is an amazing resource. There are specific groups focused on women’s health research and advocacy that can quickly inform you of the challenges in the health care environment that need to be overcome with new health care policies. This field is an exciting, evolving, and beneficial one as research continues to shed light on new treatments that require new policies so that individuals can access innovation at scale.
What does women’s health care mean to you?
Women’s health care is a very broad topic in my view. Many people may view the topic as limited to focusing on the reproductive system. However, there are many health issues that both women and men may experience – but that can affect women differently. For example, women often don’t show the classic symptoms of having a heart attack. In addition, medications used to treat certain diseases can work differently in women. Unfortunately, many health professionals are not trained to engage in a more personalized approach with their female patients. Clinical research including women is imperative to find new evidence-based prevention and treatment methods that would be more effective for women. Since women are often the primary caregivers and responsible for the overall health of their families, it is imperative that women be educated about the unique symptoms and signs of health conditions/diseases and have access to the most effective health care since their well-being may have implications for the health of her children and the entire family.
Is there one piece of advice that has resonated with you throughout your career?
It is very important for women to look to other women for guidance and advice. This is true when starting out in my career, but it’s also been crucial to me throughout my career as well. I have a personal board of directors – many of whom are women – that I invite to discuss career decisions or explore problems that come from different backgrounds and professions. I believe we should all have a personal board of directors, a group of individuals who care about us and our success unequivocally. Find people in your area and ask them for a coffee. Ask them for advice. Be weak! And if you find value in what they have to say, you may find yourself asking them to join your board.
What motivates you to get up and go to work?
I love what I do. Every day, I work on policies and strategies to help save and improve lives through health care and science. This may be Merck’s job, but it’s also mine. Aligning those tasks is personally motivating. This mission has motivated every career decision I have made to date and will underpin any career decision I make in the future. I encourage readers to find their own North Star mission. It makes work less like a job and more like a passion.
About the authors
Vice President for Education and Labor Advocacy, Governmental Affairs, US Chamber of Commerce
Allison L. Dembek is vice president of education and labor advocacy in the Department of Governmental Affairs at the American Chamber of Commerce, with a focus on education, employment and workforce development issues.