By: Heidi C. Marchand, Pharm.D.
While to many, the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., signal spring, for my office the season means bountiful opportunities to meet with groups in town for meetings and conventions in our capital city.
Patient and health professional advocacy groups that are some of FDA’s key stakeholders come to FDA Headquarters in nearby Maryland —or we go downtown to their meeting sites—for a mutual exchange of information that often has a profound influence on how we do our jobs protecting and promoting the public health.
So far, we have had informative discussions with groups as varied as the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Celiac Disease Alliance, the ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Association, and Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy.
Because we are part of the Office of the Commissioner, we’re familiar with the agency across its various centers and are ideally positioned to connect stakeholders with the experts best suited to answer questions and offer assistance.
We hear from individuals on the front lines—parents of patients with heartbreaking childhood diseases, nurses who witness firsthand the consequences of a medical device that fails to work properly, patients who want to know where and how they can participate in clinical trials.
Many are experts in their area of advocacy—they’ve had to be—and their insights are invaluable.
Putting What We Learn To Good Use
For example, as we developed a rule, mandated by Congress, to define the term “gluten-free” for voluntary use in food labeling, we not only opened the proposed regulation up for public comment on two separate occasions, but we also conducted listening sessions with groups representing people with celiac disease, who must avoid consuming gluten but want a diverse and nutritious diet. They talked about the difficulties they face in trying to identify foods that won’t endanger their health, shared information about their understanding of challenges facing the food industry, and discussed the science that underlies this issue. This information helped us to ensure that the final rule was responsive to their needs. Now people with celiac disease can be assured that if they see “gluten-free” on food labels, that term has a specific, nationally uniform (and federally enforceable) definition.
Of course, our outreach efforts extend beyond these meetings. Our staff keeps in close touch with patient and health professional advocacy groups throughout the year, and through our FDA Patient Network website where we provide information on public meetings, current FDA draft guidances, clinical trials, and drug and device approvals. In addition, our patient newsletter keeps our stakeholders apprised of this and other important work FDA is doing.
But there’s nothing like meeting face-to-face across a table.
We listen to what our constituents have to say, we take it to heart, and we share it with our colleagues. What we learn through these conversations informs our work. It becomes part and parcel of the regulations we put into place to promote and protect the public health.
Heidi C. Marchand, Pharm,D., is Assistant Commissioner in FDA’s Office of Health and Constituent Affairs