By: Robert M. Califf, M.D.
With my appointment as Commissioner of Food and Drugs comes a rare and humbling opportunity—to make a positive difference at an institution that does vitally important work for the nation and its citizens. During my vetting process I received hundreds of emails and had almost as many conversations with a large and diverse group of stakeholders. Over the course of these discussions, a recurring theme emerged: namely, that setting priorities would be critical to success.
This is hardly surprising. FDA regulates about 20 percent of the nation’s economy and, given the vast number of options, it would be easy to get lost in an overwhelming swirl of activity. In fact, at times I have been (rightfully) accused of having an excessively lengthy to-do list! But my interactions with so many of the knowledgeable, dedicated, and mission-driven people here at FDA have helped foster a clear, realistic, and focused sense of priorities and have further heightened an already strong enthusiasm for helping this awesome organization reach these ambitious goals.
FDA makes decisions in a remarkably effective and responsible way. Guided by the lodestone of our mission to protect and promote the public health, and supported by the concerted efforts of dedicated and talented professionals who examine issues within team-based systems, FDA’s Centers that form the core of our organization are able to make an enormous number of decisions every day. The vast majority of these decisions, many of which are vital to the well-being of all Americans, are made possible by a system sustained by professionalism and a well-earned reputation for high-quality and impartial judgments—despite the fact that many decisions must ultimately disappoint (or at least not fully satisfy) one or more constituencies.
I strongly believe my most important responsibility during my time at FDA is to encourage and support a professional environment that enables our remarkably dedicated workforce to thrive and to reach its fullest potential. Dramatic advances in biotechnology and information sciences, as well as continuously accelerating trends toward globalization, are ushering in an era of rapid change. But amid this change, the key to success for the Agency in accomplishing its mission remains constant—sustaining and expanding our talented workforce and ensuring that we both hire the people we need for the future while we continue to enhance our environment to ensure that we retain existing staff. To that end, I will pursue a workforce initiative designed to 1) improve the hiring system, 2) ensure that the Agency has the best possible working conditions for staff, and 3) foster professional homes for the diverse professions that make up our teams so that we are able to recruit and retain them in a very competitive market.
My top programmatic priority will likely come as no surprise, given the astonishing changes that are currently rippling through society: we must do everything possible to rapidly adapt our national and global systems of evidence generation to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by technological advances. What does this mean? I’ve noticed that when high-quality evidence is available, FDA’s scientific decision making is often straightforward. But it can be particularly challenging for the Agency when it must make scientific decisions in the absence of optimal information. In such cases, opinions may carry greater weight, and there can be an increased likelihood of dissension both inside and outside of FDA, as well as a greater risk that we may fail to most fully protect or advance the welfare of patients and the public.
FDA is a science-based, science-led organization that focuses on the needs of patients and consumers; protecting their well-being is our charge as a public health agency. The state of the art as it pertains to understanding the needs and choices of patients and the public is progressing rapidly, and we must continue to keep pace by incorporating the best methods for taking patient preferences, experiences, and outcomes into account in every part of our work.
Biomedical science is nearing a tipping point where the amount of high-quality evidence available to support our decisions is likely to increase exponentially. As a nation, we have invested over $50 billion to provide an electronic health record (EHR) for almost every American. Further, computational storage capacity and analytical power are increasing by orders of magnitude from year to year. At the same time, the advent and wide diffusion of social media are enabling direct communication with patients and consumers on an unprecedented scale. When projects such as Sentinel and the National Medical Device Evaluation System are linked with the many complementary initiatives under way at our sister agencies and at organizations outside of the government, we can (and I believe in short order will!) build a robust foundation for a system in which both private and public sectors can produce much more useful knowledge at a fraction of the cost such efforts have previously required. Indeed, a major function of FDA is to support the continued development of an effective system for evidence generation, so that the private and academic sectors can make it happen.
Accordingly, FDA is thoroughly committed to working with the many partners in our ecosystem to help build and sustain an infrastructure that produces the high-quality scientific evidence needed to guide FDA’s decisions about the drugs, medical devices, tobacco products, and food products it’s charged with regulating, as well as the decisions that healthcare providers, patients, and consumers make about their health and well-being.
In addition to this overarching priority, a number of specific critical issues are on my front burner this morning and will remain there for the foreseeable future:
- Pain. The present epidemic of opioid overdose deaths now exceeds deaths from automobile crashes. FDA cannot solve this problem on its own—and indeed, no single entity can—but we have a critical role to play, as described in our FDA Opioids Action Plan.
- Tobacco product deeming. Much effort has gone into developing the framework for the approach to the regulation of the broad array of tobacco products. FDA is working hard to finalize the deeming rule, which in its proposed form would extend FDA regulation over virtually all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, either all cigars or all but premium cigars, pipe tobacco, certain dissolvables that are not “smokeless tobacco,” gels, and waterpipe tobacco.
- Implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This statutory directive to transform the food safety system is well on its way to being implemented, with critical regulations issued and more to come. The effort involves the complex development of a new control and risk-based system that includes the entire chain of food safety. Effective implementation of this system will require the application of cutting-edge analytical and biological science, as well as the most modern approaches to human systems management.
- Antimicrobial resistance. Concerns about the proliferation of multidrug-resistant pathogens, as well as the sustainability of the product pipeline needed to meet this threat, continue to grow. We have a major responsibility in the federal plan, one that will involve many parts of the Agency and require that we work with the broad ecosystem, both to ensure that appropriate antimicrobials are used appropriately on farms, and that novel antimicrobials are developed, approved, and used responsibly within a framework of effective stewardship.
- Interagency effectiveness. When we consider our mission to protect and advance the public health, as well as our duty to balance benefit and risk for patients and consumers of medical products, much of our success can be enhanced by coordinated effort across government. We have therefore continued the FDA-NIH Joint Leadership Council and the FDA-CDC meetings, and also initiated similar discussions with CMS. The Biomarkers, Endpoints and other Tools (BEST) Resource offers a powerful example of the ability of FDA and NIH to contribute to solving scientific and regulatory issues together.
- Precision Medicine. President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative represents more than just a project. Rather, it is a window that provides a clear view of the future for biomedicine and agriculture, a future in which powerful new technologies and methods allow the precise targeting of interventions using an array of genetic, genomic, biological, clinical, social, and environmental data according to the scale needed to achieve improved health outcomes.
- Cross-Cutting Issues. There are a great many other issues (truthfully, the number reaches triple digits) on my list of concerns. But those issues that cut across the Agency, including optimizing our approach to combination products, medical countermeasures, and improving product labeling, will benefit most from my attention and support.
A single introductory blog post is not suited for giving details about priorities or individual programs. However, I hope I’ve conveyed my enthusiasm for the work at hand, as well as my confidence that we will be able to make real and lasting improvements in many critical areas. I promise that we will follow up with frequent updates, as fostering effective communication is itself an overarching priority of immense importance to me. So expect to hear from me again soon!
Robert M. Califf, M.D., is Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration