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Ferring Pharmaceuticals CSO is Invested in Improving Women's Healthcare

Analysis  |  By Robin Robinson  
   July 24, 2023

Born and raised in Nigeria, Elizabeth Garner understands the disparities in healthcare access and treatment and is seeking to level the playing field.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the July-September 2023 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.

Elizabeth Garner, MD, MPH, knows what health disparity looks like.

The chief scientific officer at Ferring Pharmaceuticals USA, born and raised in Nigeria, has seen the dire consequences of inequalities in women's healthcare play out before her eyes. For example, 20 years ago in Nigeria her young cousin, Georgina, died from undiagnosed uterine cancer.

Growing up observing a Nigerian culture where women and men were not treated equally, Garner developed a lifetime mission to swing the pendulum to a more balanced position in women’s health--not only in Nigeria, but around the world.

"I often speak about having close relatives in Nigeria who are literally dying from conditions that women just shouldn't be dying from anymore," she says. "While there has been progress made in some areas of women's health, as long as there are women dying from conditions as common as pregnancy, I feel like we've made virtually no progress."

Elizabeth Garner, chief scientific officer at Ferring Pharmaceuticals USA. Photo courtesy Ferring Pharmaceuticals USA.

In the US, for example, the maternal mortality rate is increasing, not decreasing.

"As far as its rates of maternal mortality, the US is looking very much like a developing nation," Garner says. Worse yet, Black women are approximately three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause compared to white women. There are many causes for this, including lack of access, distrust of the healthcare system, and ongoing racism.

Among the health challenges faced in maternal care is the threat of preeclampsia, which occurs when new blood vessels developing in the placenta don't work properly, leading to high or erratic blood pressure for the mother. The condition is commonly treated with magnesium.

"Preeclampsia is a major cause of death during and after pregnancy in this country," Garner says. "And we still treat that condition with intravenous magnesium. How is that possible in 2023?"

Breaking Down the Challenges in Women's Healthcare

Garner says more research is needed to identify and understand the threats to women's health, including conditions that happen only with women.

"We need desperately to just understand the science of women's health," she says. "Even as women, we don't understand most of what happens to us. Without the science, how do you develop the medicines to address these conditions?"

But more research also creates a need for more investment in developing treatments for women's health conditions.

"In women's health the industry has underinvested for so many years," says Garner. "In 2020, only 1% of the R&D spend of $200 billion went to conditions that solely affect women."

Recently, while speaking before an audience of investors, Garner asked how many had invested in women's health. 

"There was nobody in that room who had invested in women's health, and incidentally there were only about four women in the audience," she says.

There is a perception in the industry that there is no profit in women's health, but Garner says that's a wrong assumption.

"There are huge opportunities to make money and we need to get the business case out there so investors will figure that out," she says.

Another factor is that women may be hesitant to talk openly about their health. Women as patients need to shoulder some of the responsibility for their healthcare, Garner says, meaning they need to speak out about uncomfortable topics and clearly outline symptoms for their physicians no matter how embarrassing it may feel.

"It's time women moved beyond the stigma of women's health conditions and speak honestly and descriptively to their practitioners," she says. "This is a global issue. The US has the same issues around stigmatization of women's conditions as in Nigeria. I firmly believe that the fact that historically women have not been comfortable talking about all their issues is a big reason why there hasn't been the attention paid to women's health needs."

Garner says she is motivated to create ways to reduce the stigma so that patients will open up more about their conditions, allowing physicians to learn how to address those issues. She says programs like Fertility Out Loud and Safe Birth are helping to increase this awareness. 

Ferring partners with advocacy organizations, such as Resolve, to increase education as well as government organizations to increase access.

"For me, it's all about access and making everything available, no matter where or who you are," she says. 

Another factor that will help improve women's healthcare, according to Garner, is putting more women in the top seats.

"The more women in leadership roles, the more we'll see a true investment in women's health, because women understand there is absolutely money in the space, and a need, because we are willing to spend the money to improve our health," she says.

Calculated Risks on a Career That Resonates

With 30 years of experience in reproductive medicine and maternal health, Garner is using her passion and her professional skills to move the needle on improving women's health globally. Her goals include becoming the CEO of  a women’s healthcare company.

Prior to joining Ferring in 2022, she held chief medical officer roles for ObsEva and Agile Therapeutics, both women’s healthcare companies. At Agile, she led the Phase 3 clinical development of Twirla, a low-dose contraceptive patch. In 2010, at Merck Research Laboratories, she was instrumental in obtaining FDA approval for Gardasil, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

Taking calculated risks has been her MO from the beginning of her career, when she switched to OB GYN practice during her residency. She then jumped from clinical practice to industry, which at that time was an unheard-of career move.

"I definitely got a lot of pushback," she says. "But I wanted to have more impact on patients than I could by caring for one at a time. It was certainly worth that risk."

As a leader Garner gets a boost from showing others how to take calculated risks and stretch themselves in their job.

"What I enjoy the most is working with teams, and growing people, and allowing them to shine," she says. "That aspect of drawing people out and showing them what they can do is one of the things I like best about being a leader. "

The New Jersey-based mom of three takes her downtime seriously and enjoys spending it at home with her family.

"I'm a family person. I have three children, two sons and a daughter, all born in July," she says. Her oldest recently got married, and her youngest lives with autism.

"I love the opportunity on the weekends to just literally be home, just sitting with my son," she says.

“No woman should die while giving birth in 2023 but, every year, over 300,000 still do.”

Robin Robinson is a contributing writer for HealthLeaders. 


Elizabeth Garner, MD, MPH, is the chief scientific officer of Ferring Pharmaceuticals USA, a New Jersey-based biopharma company focused on reproductive medicine and maternal health.

Garner was born and raised in Nigeria and witnessed firsthand the disparities in healthcare, and she says some of those disparities are occurring here in the US as well.

She says it's a common misperception that women's health is a niche market, and that the market offers vast opportunities for value creation businesses and improving the health of women.

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