Honoring African American History by Increasing Access to Information Protecting and Promoting Your Health

By: Walter Harris

African-American History Month offers the opportunity to reflect on the contributions of African Americans in various ways, both in our local communities and on a national scale. 

Walter HarrisWe should also use this month of observance to note the public health disparities that continue in underrepresented and underserved communities.  Current CDC health statistics highlight poorer health outcomes for the African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian American, Hispanic American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. 

FDA’s Office of Minority Health (OMH), established in 2010 as a mandate of the Affordable Care Act, works to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities and to support achieving the highest standard of health for all.  A key effort to advance this mission is to promote effective communication and the dissemination of information to the public, particularly underserved, vulnerable populations. 

FDA’s website has a wealth of resources to help minority communities use safe medicines, foods, and other products the Agency regulates.  Whether you are a patient, student, health professional or caregiver, reading in English or Spanish, our website has resources to help you stay informed and stay healthy. 

We are continually working to improve user experience on FDA.gov.  We recently launched the mobile version, as our increasingly mobile stakeholders and workforce require creative approaches to keep our data and systems accessible on mobile platforms. We are also working to significantly improve the search capabilities on the website, as well as maintaining Section 508 compliance to ensure that www.FDA.gov content is accessible to people with disabilities. OMH also works to improve and strengthen the research and evaluation of subgroup demographic data associations with race and ethnicity, particularly how data is represented in clinical trial participation, safety and effectiveness data.  As a participant in FDA’s Data Standards Council, OMH helps to coordinate the evaluation, development, maintenance, and adoption of health and regulatory data standards for race and ethnicity to ensure that common data standards are used throughout the agency. 

FDA’s Office of Information Management and Technology is engaged in various ways to improve the availability of data for consumers, researchers, developers, and industry.  More than 80 resources are currently indexed publicly, many updated daily, including adverse drug events, reports involving medical devices, searchable listings of over-the-counter tests cleared or approved by the FDA, and a database of accredited mammography facilities. 

Our goal is to increase the transparency of FDA data to the public through the openFDA initiative, which is being run by the newly-established Office of Informatics and Technology Innovation. We plan to provide access to multiple high-value structured data sets to consumers, including the mobile app and software developer community, starting in Summer 2014.

FDA believes that access to this data will further the Agency’s regulatory mission and, most importantly, will help inform minority and underserved populations – as well as  the general population – on ways to improve their health. In support of this goal, we must break many of the traditional technology infrastructure barriers by implementing cloud technologies to better support the exponential growth of data we are managing. We are also leveraging this ingenuity to address, for example, analyzing and sharing large amounts of information such as applying Next Generation Sequencing for generating, analyzing, reviewing, and sharing genetic information.

I encourage all of us to commemorate this month by not only reflecting on the drive and inspirational spirit of past and present African Americans, but to also taking the time to think of how we can apply that same drive and spirit to our mission of protecting and promoting public health. 

Walter Harris is Deputy Commissioner for Operations and Acting Chief Information Officer, Food and Drug Administration

Celebrating African-American Contributions to Public Health

By: Jonca Bull, M.D.

As a medical doctor and director of FDA’s Office of Minority Health, I am highly conscious of health disparities in the United States. Certain racial and ethnic populations respond differently to some medical products. FDA ensures that these differences are considered in its review of marketing applications for medical products.

But as an American, I am also highly aware how much all of us in this country have in common, a simple truth that emerges with particular clarity during this African American History Month, when we commemorate the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Jonca Bull, M.D., is Director of FDA’s Office of Minority HealthBoth events have had a profound effect not only on African Americans, but on our entire nation. The Emancipation Proclamation was critical to President Lincoln’s efforts to end the Civil War and advance freedom. The March on Washington brought us Dr. Martin Luther King’s unforgettable call to America to live up to his “dream.” His vision of equality and racial harmony has been a steadfast guide for all Americans as we strive toward “e pluribus unum”— “Out of Many, One”, the ideal enshrined in the Seal of the United States.

This common bond unites us in many other ways.

As an ophthalmologist and a physician, I have a great admiration for the many distinguished African Americans who advanced medical science.

For example, Dr. Charles Drew discovered a method for the preservation of blood that was used extensively during World War II by the British military to save the lives of wounded soldiers. After the war, Drew was appointed the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank.

He was only one of many outstanding African-American scientists.

This honor roll includes Percy Julian, an Alabama native who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, and in 1935 synthesized physostigmine, a drug for the treatment of glaucoma, and cortisone for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

It includes Daniel Hale Williams, the first surgeon to successfully perform open-heart surgery, Dewey Sanderson, the inventor of the urinalysis machine, Otis Boykin, who designed a control unit for the heart pacemaker, and Michael Croslin, who computerized blood pressure devices.

As a civil servant, I celebrate the history of African Americans by remembering their leadership in public health. The first to earn this distinction was Patricia Harris, a Howard University professor, who in 1979 became the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Ten years later, the department was entrusted to the leadership of Dr. Louis Sullivan, the founder of the Morehouse School of Medicine. And in 1993, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a pediatrician and public health administrator, became the first African-American to be named Surgeon General.

And as an FDA employee, I am proud to be working with many outstanding administrators and scientists of African-American ancestry who every day contribute to the public health and help advance FDA’s mission.

I have mentioned just a few of the distinguished narratives in our history that have been authored by remarkable African Americans—intellectuals, professionals, soldiers and artists of outstanding achievement.

I celebrate these women and men as fellow Americans whose extraordinary spirit, talent and efforts advance better health for all. I celebrate them as an inseparable part of my own proud heritage as an African American citizen.

Jonca Bull, M.D., is Director of FDA’s Office of Minority Health