Allison Dembeck Allison Dembeck
Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


January 27, 2023


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Women Taking the Lead (WTTL) program is focused on showcasing top executive women, connecting them with a network of allies who will champion their work, and providing these leaders with professional growth opportunities to drive change in C-Suites, boardrooms, and congressional and corner offices in DC and throughout the country.

Each month Women Taking the Lead highlights a female leader within the U.S. Chamber membership to showcase how women are currently leading in all areas of the business community.  In January, we are highlighting Cervical Cancer Awareness Month and the importance of women’s healthcare in a conversation with Jenelle Krishnamoorthy, Ph.D., Vice President and Head of Global Public Policy for Merck. Read more about Jenelle in her own words below. 

Tell me about your role at Merck and what brought you into the healthcare space.

Let me first start by thanking you, Allison, and the Chamber of Commerce for publishing “In Her Own Words” every month. It is such a great opportunity for women and men to hear about exciting women leaders and careers that women have in and outside of government.

I am the Vice President and Head of Global Public Policy at Merck. In this role, I have the awesome responsibility of finding policy solutions that will help Merck meet its mission of using leading-edge science to save and improve lives around the world.

The potential to reduce the impact of the human disease kept me focused on global and domestic health policy in my 20+ year career across academia, government, and the private sector, including in roles as the Health Policy Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and in the Bureau of South Asian Affairs in the U.S. State Department covering health care, science, and technology issues. My work is grounded in my clinical training as a pediatric clinical psychologist. After completing my post-doctoral fellowship at Brown Medical School and completing research supported by the National Institute of Health, I knew that I wanted to go further upstream – to help as many people as possible remain healthy and well through broad policy interventions. 

In all these positions, I am fortunate to have worked for and alongside 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.

The National Cancer Institute said more than 14,000 women in the United States receive a Cervical Cancer diagnosis annually. Can you tell me about Merck and the work the company is doing in terms of the prevention, screening, and treatment of cervical cancer in the United States?

No one should have to face that type of news. As I alluded to earlier, Merck is at the forefront of cancer research, investing billions of dollars in an effort to bring new therapies to the patients who need them.  

Prior to the pandemic, we saw increasing rates in cancer screening and reductions in cancer occurrences. While we still have reason to be optimistic, we know that the pandemic has taken its toll on cancer prevention through reduced rates of screening and early detection efforts, and less treatment. That means individuals and families are suffering. That also means businesses may be challenged to meet their mission. What happens if an employee becomes ill or the owner of a local store on main street receives a cancer diagnosis? It is why we are so focused on continuing our research efforts and working alongside trusted voices in communities to raise awareness and increase cancer prevention efforts, including screening.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) said cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer in women globally, and the World Health Assembly developed a strategy to eliminate Cervical Cancer as a global health problem.  What is Merck doing to support the WHO Elimination Agenda? 

The challenges that we are experiencing in the U.S. when it comes to preventing and addressing the cancer burden are not happening in a silo. It is why Merck was so pleased when the WHO launched the Global Strategy Towards the Elimination of 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 to support the WHO’s goal of eliminating Cervical Cancer once and for all. Merck is excited to be part of these initiatives that are aligned to Merck’s mission. 

How would you recommend others get started in healthcare policy—are there particular resources, maybe even ones related specifically to women’s health that you’ve found helpful? 

Many individuals’ interests get sparked in healthcare policy when they see how much impact they can have by writing policies that affect an entire segment of a population. There are undergraduate, and graduate courses, and degrees in healthcare policy that individuals can pursue.  Following formal training, gaining a fellowship or job where you can apply what you have learned in school to either federal or state policy can be instrumental in understanding not just how to develop new policy but also how the politics and process of the system can impact if the policy ever gets passed and implemented.  Working with various health groups, trade associations, patient groups, academics, and the private sector is a great resource. There are specific groups that focus on women’s health research and advocacy that can inform you quickly of challenges in the healthcare setting that need to be overcome with new healthcare policies. This field is an exciting, evolving, and rewarding area as research continues to bring to light new treatments that demand new policies so that individuals can have wide access to innovation.

What does women’s healthcare mean to you?

Women’s healthcare is a very broad topic from my point of 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 can affect women differently. For instance, women many times do not exhibit the classic symptoms when 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 that includes women is imperative to find new evidence-based prevention and treatment approaches that would be most effective for women.  Since women many times are the main caregiver and responsible for their family’s overall health, it is imperative that women are educated on unique symptoms and signs of health conditions/diseases and have access to the most effective healthcare since their well-being may have implications for the health of her children and the entire family. 

Is there a single piece of advice that resonated with you throughout your career?

It is so important for women to seek out other women for mentorship and advice. That is true when beginning a career, but has been critical to me throughout my career, as well. I have a personal Board of Directors – many of whom are women – I call upon to discuss career decisions or troubleshoot challenges that come from various backgrounds and careers. I think that we should all have a personal Board of Directors, a group of individuals who care about us and our success unequivocally. Seek out individuals who are in your orbit and ask them for coffee. Ask them for advice. Be vulnerable!  And, if you find value in what they have to say, you may just find yourself asking them to join your personal Board of Directors.

What motivates you to wake 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. It may be Merck’s mission, but it is my mission, too. The alignment of those missions is personally motivating. And it is this mission that has motivated every career decision I have made to date and will underpin any career decision I make in the future. I encourage your readers to find their mission their own north star. It makes work feel less like a job and more like a passion.

About the authors

Allison Dembeck

Allison Dembeck

Allison L. Dembeck is vice president of education and labor advocacy in the Government Affairs Division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, focusing on education, labor, and workforce development issues.

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